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I’m in the bathroom of the American embassy in Tokyo, and I can’t leave. Somewhere in the elegant rooms beyond, the ambassador is holding his annual holiday party. Diplomats from around the world, U.S. military personnel and reporters are mingling, sipping Champagne and picking at hors d’oeuvres. As TIME’s Tokyo bureau chief, I should be there, trolling for gossip or mining potential sources.
And for 20 minutes or so after arriving, despite the usual nerves, I did just that. But small talk with stiff-backed strangers at a swanky cocktail party is by far my least favorite part of my job.