Sumo, Sake and the Japanese escapade!

by Towheed Feroze

XTRA cover sumo

The air of amazement peppered with disbelief in the voice of the customs officer was too perceptible to miss: ‘All of you are going to Japan?’. This was 2001; going to Japan usually conjured up the image of landing in a dream land and, well, for many Bangladeshis, the temptation to stay back and work was sometimes too overpowering.

Japan two years and come back to retire with a solid bank account, went the saying in the late 90s.

Ekbar Jodi Japan jaite partam (I wish I could go to Japan once)…many young dreamers hoping to hit it big were often heard to utter.

‘Yes, we are going to Japan as part of the Bangladesh youth delegation,’ Professor Rashed Uz Zaman, then a lecturer, replied purposefully.

‘And yes, we are all coming back.’

The team was the epitome of exuberance, dynamic minds and a little dash of the diabolical: two young talented foreign office officials, Daniul (possibly in United Nations now) and Samina Naz (currently Deputy High Commissioner at the Bangladesh consul in Mumbai), promising figures from the academia, Dr Rashed Uz Zaman (now Professor at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka (DU)), Mofizur Rhaman (presently Professor plus Chairman Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, DU), Dr Masrur Reaz (then a lecturer at North South University, currently Senior Economist, World Bank Group’s Trade and Competitiveness portfolio in Bangladesh), Shahriar (then lecturer Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, now based in Canada), Lotus (then lecturer at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology), Khadimul Islam Ridoy (then staff reporter for The Independent and then Chief Reporter of New Age) and, of course the layer of vice from this humble writer….a mad journalist then, working for The Independent and, presently a communication person at the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.


Photo from Japan trip 2001: from left: M. Masrur Reaz, Towheed Feroze, Rashed Uz Zaman, Mofizur Rhaman, Lara Lotus.. in Tokyo


From Left to Right- M. Masrur Reaz, Professor Mofizur Rahman, Chairman of the Department of Journalism, University of Dhaka_ Professor Rashed Uz Zaman, International Relations, DU and TowhThe team recently gathered at the writer’s house to reminisce the Japan adventure from 2001. From Left to Right- M. Masrur Reaz,Senior Economist, World Bank Group’s Trade and Competitiveness portfolio in Bangladesh; Professor Mofizur Rahman, Chairman of the Department of Journalism, University of Dhaka; Professor Rashed Uz Zaman, International Relations, DU and Towheed Feroze, the writer

More diabolic than before but I now know how to hide the horns between 10:00am and 6:00pm.

Sixteen years later, when Masrur, Rashed, Mofiz and I got together for a wet Boishakh lunch, the memories of that life changing trip seemed amazingly vivid.

Rashed Uz Zaman looked at me and said: weren’t you taken in by the customs for questioning? Yep, at the clinical Tokyo airport they could sense the rat in the pack.

For some reason, customs could not find the departure seal on my passport.

Come on, they should have known, the devil does not need a stamp to travel!

Anyway, my press card plus the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) invitation letter saved the day.

The trip, arranged by the Japanese government, was aimed at bringing youth groups from all South Asian nations on a familiarisation visit to Japan.

In short, you get a thorough 13-days tour of major cities, spending August 6, Hiroshima Day, in Hiroshima, reinforcing the message of peace and remembering the mass carnage caused by the atom bomb in 1945.

Sixteen years later, as we sat around the lunch table we could actually recall each and every event that happened, the cities we visited, the people we met and the spectacular bond that we formed.

In Tokyo, we were all in our best suits to meet the Japanese royalty. At the foreign office, we took part in discussions aimed at making bonds among nations stronger to avoid conflict.

Then there were, of course, our respected South Asian counterparts. A UK educated lawyer from the Pakistan team and a journalist from the Indian side hit it off from day one. The lawyer seemed to be on a mission here, ignoring all others to carry on with his wooing.

Ainoggo, we decided to call him…er, well, ‘horny ainoggo’ is the right definition.

There was an elegant young lady called Beenish Pervez from the Pakistan side who seemed to have rocked the guys in our team.

I promptly played the ‘astrologer card’: yes, in free time I read palms. May I……

Voila, it hardly fails (even today). Beenish at that time was an avid Salman Khan fan and, so, after reading her palm and showering her with compliments we got on talking about the great Khan.

From Tokyo we went to Kyoto and then, each of us got the chance to spend a day with a Japanese family.

This was enlightening as it opened up civilian Japanese life to us. The family where I stayed gave me a formal tea ceremony.

A young girl, a friend of the family, drove up in a Toyota Corsa, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, changed to a kimono and, then, in a room where I was seated on the floor, carried out the full tea offering ceremony.

The man of the house where I stayed came late at night, had a brief chat with me and without changing clothes, took the dog out for a walk.

‘He is a workaholic,’ the lovely wife said with a smile.

Noodles cooled with ice washed down with bottles of Asahi – workaholic he may be but the following afternoon, the man of the house decided to unwind with me.

Did I like the noodles?

Oishi…I replied with a mouthful!

Once back with the team we went to a Sumo stable, where wrestlers practiced in the morning, ate a heavy calorie soup in the afternoon followed by a long nap.

Cutting out the practice part, where rookie wrestlers are pulverised with perverted pleasure, wouldn’t mind the rest plus the food at all.

In between all this activity, the gelling of the group was moving smoothly. We were all young professionals from different fields, with ideal hopes; well, at least eight of the rest had respectable aspirations which drowned most of my murkier desires.

‘Love hotels,’ said our guide while we were on a city tour, adding, ‘here, you can come with your partner and spend some quality time.’
Now you are talking, mate!

For the Japanese, South Asian names were a novelty (at times cumbersome) so the guides asked us to explain the meaning of our names which most did with all the necessary linguistic verve.

When my turn came, I said: see, my name is Towheed but it would be easier for you to remember my nick name which is all over the toilets in Japan. Its TOTO…..

Sixteen years later, the memory of the Sinkansen or the ride in the Bullet train still triggers an adrenaline rush.

In the excitement of the whole trip, Lotus, recently married and carrying all her jewelry, misplaced the box carrying the ornaments.

Amaar shona’…well, she actually did not say that…but the air reverberated with the word: shona, gold, ornaments.

The Japanese guides were unruffled and perhaps slightly bemused by the sense of anxiety.

They calmly made a phone call and the voice on the other end said they had found a box and would send it over.

Well, case closed. Shona and the owner reunited: three cheers for Japanese integrity!

Our Ridoy left his jacket in another city and was also reunited with his garment.

We were fascinated by the earthquake preparation exhibition and awe-struck at Isuzu Motors.

The usage of white gloves among taxi drivers caught my eye too.

By the way, forgot an important thing: the moment we landed in Japan, each one of us was handed an envelope containing 59,000 Yen as pocket money.
What could we say: Banzai forever!

The money was for incidental expenses and, at that time, this meant a lot to us.

Hiroshima Day in Hiroshima was spent in reflection and trying to grasp the realities of war. We listened to Japanese PM Koizumi deliver his speech and floated Suru (paper swans) on the small pond as a gesture of peace.

By this time, the Indo-Pak romance had moved at a rocket’s pace. The lawyer’s aggressive flirtations were reaping benefits. Fast!

No wonder, his laughter from time to time increased in volume to take the form of a satiated jackal.

I currently work on mergers, he told me over a drink. Yes, I know exactly what you mean…..

Wrap it up in a fortnight, eh!

Then one evening, in Hakone, the two emerged from the clouds……Happy in Hakone….

Shabash, beta….this accommodating spirit is needed in other issues.

Our Masrur Reaz decided to follow the Italian trend, dressing in black shirts and silver suits, looking more like Al Capone in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, the foreign office partners neutralised the unorthodox behaviour of others with their proper conduct.

On the last night in Tokyo we met a Bangladeshi living in Tokyo who came up to me and said: boss, today I pay for all the drinks!
Ami Narayanganj er pola, (I am from Narayanganj, if you face any problem in Narayanganj just drop my name), he said with marked panache.
Apne kago loge cholen (who do you move around with?) he asked. Once upon a time, this line, used as a question, inquired about the gang one hung around with.

Back in the 90s and for a few years after the turn of the century, involvement in area-based groups boosted one’s social position and status.

Hence the common lines that drew admiration: I go around with Pichchii Hannan or Gaal Kaata Kamal group or Baitta Mamun or Chikna Sobuj group…..

Yep, with him we had a hearty laugh on a pleasant Tokyo night. I had to tell him: bhai, I do not move around with anyone, have my own group: TOTO Company Group….no violence on mischief allowed.

But, in the end, it was a jamboree, exciting discovery of a country while developing camaraderie and a sense of unity.

The guys from Sri Lanka presented their superb martial arts skills; the lovely girls from the Maldives danced in colourful costumes; the team leader from Nepal was a one-man army; singing dancing at the same time; Indian guys gave us a memorable break dance session; Pakistan were scintillating in their group song and Bhutan gave a wonderful show of their traditional music.

Sixteen years later, all of us in their mid-forties or on the wrong side of the forties, cannot but agree that the trip made in 2001 was a watershed event for our lives. Combining fun and entertainment, the Japan adventure was in fact our gateway into an international platform.

I personally think, amidst all that mischief and lighthearted joy, we found an inspiration for what we did in our respective lines of work.

At the lunch to commemorate the Japan trip at my place recently, we agreed without hesitation that even though we had made and still make countless trips overseas with important delegates, somehow, they never match the sense of fulfillment emanating from the tour of Japan in 2001.

‘I travel at least five times every month going from one end of the earth to the other but never has any trip left such a lasting impact on me,’ said Masrur Reaz.

Friendships forged then, survive today, experiences shared during that visit are invoked from time to time and the youthful pizzazz of that voyage in 2001 somehow manages to resurface as a motivation.
Rashed Uz Zaman and Mofizur Rhaman are professors now, heading for greater achievements no doubt and yet, all the memories from Japan are fresh in their minds.

On our way back to Bangladesh from Japan, all of us felt a feeling of contentment. I still recall the ANA stewardess who came to me and asked: sir, wine, beer, brandy?

I smiled back and said: no babe, give me Sake…and don’t stop…..


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