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Tokyoites. Introduction, Pt. 2
During my urban explorations I began to learn some of the city’s rules of engagement. First and foremost, I understood what being invisible really meant, and that the only people who approach a foreigner are the weirdoes; the guys who want to practice their broken English with you; the fanatics who want to pray for you; and those shifty types who collect money for this or that cause.
I guess being invisible has something to do with speed. People in Tokyo are always in a hurry, constantly going somewhere. We walk a lot in Tokyo.
We walk so fast that the men and women around us become a blur, mere obstacles to be avoided. The Tokyoite is so busy that sometimes even forgets the big anniversaries. Like Tokyo’s birthday, for example. In 1603 Tokyo – at the time called Edo – was chosen by shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu as his power base and the site for his castle, thus becoming the de facto capital of the country (the Emperor, in the meantime, was relegated in Kyoto where he stayed until the fall of the shogunate, in 1868). In 2003 we were supposed to celebrate the city’s 400th birthday. Apparently more than 700 events were organized over a 15-month period. Well, you know what? I was already here, and if I hadn’t read about it in the paper, I would have never known it. These so-called celebrations – mainly small festivals and exhibits – were so subdued that nobody here realized there was anything in the works. Such is the spirit of Tokyo.
I had been told the Japanese were extremely conservative and conformist, and they are, in many respects. But Tokyo encourages defiance, at least when it comes to fashion and lifestyles. Here you can come up with the most outrageous cloths combination without being rewarded with a double take. You are also treated to certain surreal scenes that seem to come straight out of a forgotten Fellini movie, but you would never ever see in Italy, like those sweet-looking grannies, all laces, white gloves and parasol who show off their mauve-dyed hair as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Indeed, older Japanese people are often more daring, more open in stating their views on life or the government, and are not afraid of quietly pushing the envelope.
I’m often asked what living in Tokyo as a foreigner feels like. Japan does not welcome gaijin. If you are a refugee from some godforsaken dangerous country and you are asking for help, just forget it. This country accepts less than 30 refugees per year. As for the others, their presence is generally tolerated for some time – a few years perhaps – if they really have something tangible to offer, such as a particular skill (e.g. English teaching monkeys who can double as class entertainers), or they are willing to do one of those jobs the locals find too dirty or dangerous to do themselves. But Tokyo, like Japanese police, is so powerful that will look the other way, laws be damned, while illegal workers find a corner to hide, and it’s so huge that there are plenty of such corners.
Another important lesson I learned (this is something many angry foreigners often fail to see, or don’t want to admit) is that more often than not, when someone gets mad at you, or gives you a nasty look, is not being a xenophobe, and you shouldn’t take it personally. They would just as well pick a fight with their fellow countryman or vent their frustration against a young Japanese mother whose stroller is taking up vital space on a train.
In 1992, while my plan was to move to Tokyo for good, I actually came as a tourist which meant I had to leave after three months. So I did what everybody did at the time: flew to neighboring Korea, spent a couple of days in Seoul, and flew back to Tokyo. On my arrival at Narita Airport, I showed the poker-faced immigration officer my passport, my brand-new necktie (bought cheap at a Korean street market) and the most disarmingly friendly smile I could manage. The officer looked at me then took a good look at my passport (and that exit stamp that was only three days old). Then looked at me again and asked if I had anything to declare. I don’t know, maybe some drugs stashed in my bag? (Japanese immigration officer will actually ask such questions, hoping drug smugglers are honest enough to say yes.) And then I was in again, and I knew I was here to stay because after all Tokyo was my city. By now I was sure about that, and nobody was going to kick me out.
So many things have changed since then. The Tokyo Tower has been repainted five or six times but has lost to the boring-looking Tokyo Sky Tree (the Big Toothpick!) the title of tallest structure in Japan. Finding an address is not akin to a treasure hunt anymore thanks to Google Maps and the smartphone. Tokyo Station has got back its third floor that had been destroyed during WWII. All books, newspapers and manga have disappeared from Tokyo trains (thanks to the ubiquitous smartphone) – including the salarymen who used to openly enjoy the naughty pictures in the sport papers oblivious of the people around them. And what happened to the Iranian guys who used to sell modified phone cards in Shibuya and on Sundays got into fights with pompadoured Japanese rockers in Yoyogi Park?
On the other hand, one thing that hasn’t changed at all is the Tokyoite’s sense of discipline. With nine million people (or thirteen, depending on the way you count them) constantly pushing against the city’s groaning infrastructure, social discipline is the only way they can manage to coexist. The overall effect is akin to an elephant walking a tightrope. It’s supposed to fall at any moment but somehow remains miraculously afloat. Very few cities can do that. As the aforementioned Zucconi pointed out in his book, if Rome had as many people as Tokyo it would quickly turn into another Calcutta (sorry, I mean Kolkata).
As for me, I must admit I was lucky. I did the best thing in the world, that is I followed my wife-to-be‘s advice and moved a little far from the madding crowd, to a place where I could commute to work without being squeezed like a sardine into a 200-percent-capacity train. Now I live in a quiet, anonymous-looking (shall we add sleepy?) Yokohama suburbs but I still spend a good part of my time in the capital. My station is only a 30-minute train ride away from Tokyo, quite close by the city’s standards but far enough that I always find a vacant seat. That’s vitally important because in order to brave the masses and stand the pressure you need all your physical and mental strength. When you are full of energy, Tokyo feels like a huge amusement park, a wonderland that gives back as much as it gets from you. But if you enter the fray unprepared it just kills you. That’s why so many people guzzle one energy drink after another or fall asleep as soon as they plump down on a train seat - only to wake up and push their way out the door once they reach their destination.
So technically speaking I may not live in Tokyo anymore, but I sure belong here. I’ve never doubted that. Not only I’ve never had any problem settling in; when I first came here, I actually felt like coming home, as strange as this may sound. One night, a few years ago, I even had the strangest of dreams. I was standing on a podium in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in West Shinjuku, like John F. Kennedy when he visited West Berlin in 1963. And like JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” I shouted, “I am a Tokyoite!”
When I decided to write a book about Tokyo my main worry was that too many years had passed since I’d moved here. I feel I’ve nearly lost any capability to detach myself from my surroundings and see things from the outside in. It has come to the point that when I see a foreigner on the subway, I tell my wife “Look! A gaijin!” as if I wasn’t one myself. As one of the world’s best-known Japanophiles, Lafcadio Hearn, once said, if you really want to capture and put on paper that feeling of novelty and excitement we all have when we are first introduced to a new place or society, you have to start writing as soon as you set foot on that land, while your sight is still pure and your look on things is not distorted or weakened by habit, prejudice or any other kind of cultural or psychological filter. Routine is a dangerous beast that insinuates itself in every aspect of our life.
So I decided to ask for help. If my vision had deteriorated, I would look at the city through other people’s eyes; I would tell its story through their own stories. Fifteen years of interviewing people for magazines and newspapers had made me a story addict, and what better project to fuel my addiction than making a book full of interviews?
To be sure, talking to the Japanese can be difficult especially if it’s someone you meet for the first time, even when they have volunteered to be interviewed. Talking to strangers is definitely something most Japanese don’t do, at least in Tokyo (Osaka, as I said, is quite different) and even when they talk they never tell you directly what they think or how they feel.
Generally speaking, men (especially guys in their 40s and 50s) are tougher than women; sometimes talking to them is like pulling teeth. They can be very shy, formal; their spontaneity completely destroyed by years spent in a working environment where following the rules is everything. You will never catch a Japanese strike up a conversation on the train or having small talk in shops and cafes, like many westerners do. Even my university students sometimes regard each other as if they were exotic animals, and even as simple a thing as borrowing a pencil from a classmate can result in a very awkward interaction.
The only way to get any Japanese to talk freely (and noisily) is after they’ve had a few at the bar, but I’m not much of a drinker so I had to find other ways to get them to talk; I had to work slowly and be patient. On the other hand, one good thing about the Japanese is that once you get their trust you can be sure they are not going to cheat and will tell you the truth – at least their own sometimes twisted truth. Which is, I guess, the most we can ask.
Tokyo never allows you to take her for granted, and it’s this ever-changing chaos that hides most of the city’s charm. It seems that here things are allowed to grow, develop, change and die according to a natural inner rhythm, like a living organism, in which beauty is to be found in the easily overlooked small things. If you just walk around, and even let yourself get lost, you will discover around every corner many little big surprises whose crescendo always causes me something similar to an orgasm. In a sense, if you really want to enjoy and “live” Tokyo, one of the best things you can do is throw away your map and follow your instinct. The combination – sometimes the clash – of new and old and the ceaseless input of new cultural imports from around the world give the city an energy you can hardly find elsewhere.
It’s the excitement of urban culture in the process of constant creation and reinvention.
There are times, like those crispy winter mornings when the sky is crystal clear and the chilly air makes me walk faster and my heart beat slower, that I feel like I own all the back streets. I own the dilapidated little houses that lean against the cold gray skyscrapers. I own the ubiquitous ugly electric wires hanging over my head and the garbage carefully gathered at every corner.
I feel like I own the whole damn place.
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