A Love Letter from Tokyo
Lucky me! Invited by Sasori to spend 10 days in Japan! Here are my initial thoughts…
- A Bullshit Interpretation of Japanese History
Theory: the Japanese are pan-galactic superior beings who settled on their tiny islands and embarked on a centuries-long project of world dominance. Their first move once they had settled their vicious internecine conflicts in around 1600 was to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. The objective being genetic engineering. In order to ensure conformity they simply killed anyone who didn’t stick to the Shogunate’s rules. The Tokugawa rule was characterized by incredible brutality, a secret service which would respond to the merest whisper of the slightest thought of revolt. Their entire families too were sliced up by Samurais. So the survivors would all have the obeisance gene, the conformity DNA. By 1860 the project was complete and pretending to bow down before the cannons of the Americans, they opened up to the world in order to get hold of better weapons than swords sharp as razors.
Load of nonsense. Well, the interpretation of the history, if not the history itself. This is how racist conspiracy theories are born.
But just having a little fun with it: according to this bullshit theory, Pearl Harbour was the culmination of their preparations for world-dominance, but the project was put on hold by the atomic bombs which were unexpected and of course temporarily catastrophic. Hence the post-war charm offensive.
Japan has certainly been on a massive charm offensive since the fifties when it began to sink in that years of bad press is lousy for trade, and it has worked! Because the new generations believe in it so much they have, with exceptions, become world-beatingly charming. Loveable even.
And boy, the charm could not possibly be more charming.
- Tokyo Spring
The weather today could not be much more horrible. A terribly chilly rain, just short of freezing, is wafting down into the sodden Tokyo streets as if determined to cancel Spring, to persuade the cherry trees to put off their glorious raiment and shrivel and die. Outside this cute boutique hotel on the back streets of Nezu, Japan’s largest city goes about its business with perfect equanimity and efficiency, umbrellas unfurled and faces set.
This is the great season of the Sakura – the festival of celebration of Spring, Hirosaki when the parks and gardens explode with the pink beauty of cherry and plum trees. When Ueno Park should be jammed with picnics. Instead, we visitors shiver and moan while the Japanese go about their business with their usual equanimity. Everyone has an umbrella and if you don’t, there are umbrellas waiting for owners at various points around the city and if you have lost one, another will certainly turn up. Outside every shop or restaurant there is a brilliant machine which, when you drop your brolly into it, instantly wraps it in plastic to prevent it dripping everywhere. Then when you leave you slip the plastic off and place it in a strategically placed bin.
Another so simple, so perfect, so Japanese solution. Mind you there is no provision for folding umbrellas, so no-one except stupid Westerners carries one.
Tokyo is a sprawling concatenation of districts, each with a trace of the individualistic character they once had before war and earthquake licked so many buildings and people into eternity and fading memory. Our hotel as I said is in Nezu. The u by the way is almost silent. It’s as if the letter u in Japanese is a little like a memory, a trace of that imperial past, of the shogunate. Of the Tokugawa with their Bushido and their pride, their absolute conviction of their superiority to all other races and their determination right up to the 1860s to maintain isolation at all costs.
So Nezu has more traces than much of Tokyo of what was probably a working class environment of wooden houses and tangles of streets and alleys. Here the past whispers loudly and Macdonalds maintains a respectful distance. Every here and there a very tired looking wooden house leans against its neighbour and quietly decomposes while concrete boxes of tiny apartments maintain their polite dominance of the streets.
There is of course no litter. No-one eats in public, that would be rude and an inconvenience to others. There is no graffiti at all on train carriages. For the same reason anyone suffering from a cold or other communicable disease wears a face mask. OR they are protecting themselves against the vast variety of viruses so generously shared amongst all Tokyoans, through vast coughs and sneezes seldom intercepted by hand or tissue. OR they are trying to escape the pollution which is reputedly very bad. Or they are about to embark on an armed robbery. Or all five. Seems quite a good idea after all.
- Pooing Japanese Style
The Japanese (those who run this Hotel anyway) seem to believe toilet paper has to be as light as silk, as thin as a whisper, and obviously as cheap as chips. It therefore dissolves in the hand early on in the journey from roll to butt and is entirely useless for anything other than decoration, no doubt draped over Christmas trees in imitation of a fantastically tasteful sprinkle of the mere image of snow.
Unlike of course the legendary fully computerised Japanese toilets which require two years of full-time study to operate correctly. For the novice or Geijin, the first time bottom meets heated seat is a terrifying shock and brings to mind broiled ham and the possibility of soup being prepared below. And then, if you press the wrong button, a jet of manic water will lave your testicles, leaving you in a state of wetness and confusion far beyond the capabilities of single ply absorbent tracing paper to mitigate the wetness in any satisfactory way and allow your appearance in public. There are many other buttons. I have no idea what they do because I wouldn’t dare try.
- Perfectly Considered
All rules are unquestioningly adhered to. Not enforced, because there is no need. Sidewalks are shared by pedestrians and cyclists in the secure knowledge that the cyclist is far too polite to cause an accident. The subway platform, for example, has clear lines painted showing where you are to stand when the train arrives. Once in the carriage you may use your mobile phone for any purpose other than what they were originally designed for, sending or receiving calls.
Many of the Japanese in the subway are asleep or dead. Even schoolkids use train carriages to escape from the monotony of training to be best at everything and sink into the deepest of dreamlands whenever safely away from their duties. A kid’s head on my shoulder for four stops I found awkward and uncomfortable but I didn’t dare push him away for fear of being thought a heartless foreigner. When I stood up (way too soon for my station) the elderly gentleman who replaced me was immediately appropriated as a cushion by the mop-head. He didn’t seem to mind.
Loud conversation doesn’t happen on a train or in the street except between Gaijin, foreigners, who are regarded with paternalistic disdain. After all, says the silent u, they are inferior.
- Eating Japan
In certain types of restaurant orders are conveyed to the chefs by the serving staff with gusto and delight. Shouting at full volume is very much in order and a big surprise for foreigners who would never expect the Japanese to do this, except in martial combat. You could easily imagine the waitress to be shouting, you’ll never believe this we’ve just sold another onegatapuri Or whatever the hell strange dish of fish genitals or poisonous concoctions designed to kill any non Japanese at fifty yards they have just, incredibly sold. To which the chef will shout hurray what a brilliant opportunity to serve something live to someone stupid! Probably foreign! Therefore dead soon!
The above is cynical bullshit, once again. The risk of not being amusing about Japanese food is great because frankly most of it is incredibly overwhelmingly as delicious as it is mysterious. Fish is tweaked and tormented until it releases the most delicious flavours in the world. Meat, especially their perfect marbled steak is self-evidently the best in the world. But that’s what the Japanese do – the best in the world. Frankly. Presentation of any food is always designed to create a gorgeous picture, a delight for the eyes and the soul. (Well, they are after all superior pan-galactic beings so what did you expect…oh dear…More bullshit. This is not a travelogue or conspiracy-theory inducing Science Fiction.)
I am so impressed by the kindness and consideration shown by all to all. A small example: in every small restaurant or café the customer is expected to take their tray with dirty dishes etc to a service hatch to save the waiters the job. This is only fair as there is no tipping.
- Down Town Up town
The central city districts are no different to any other monster shopping and business area in any modern city. I am reminded of Dallas, or Montreal, without the dirt.
The predatory spread of Americanisation has done for so many of the Japanese youth and food businesses, as well as for many waistlines. Piped music is almost invariably American in restaurants and shops, although in some ways they have certainly made their own version of capitalism. Although there is a strict no tipping policy in everything, from restaurants to taxis. Yesterday I left a tip in a small local café and the waitress/owner came running after me to give me the coin back.
In some places recorded announcements stridently call passers’ attention to bargains inside. In some places a robot does this, and in others, a human. This is most evident in the built-up central districts like Rippongi (their Knightsbridge/Bond Street/Rodeo Drive) and more so in their version of Camden/Camden Market – in Shibuya is a street of mad shops and restaurants swarming with young trendy Japanese and the foreigners who come to be touristical and gawp. I’ve quite forgotten what it’s called. Sorry. This is not a travelogue. This happens hardly at all in sweet little old Nezu.
The Japanese do everything with the utmost effort to ensure perfection. Their unremitting cheerfulness in being of service – apparently taking huge delight in your satisfaction with endless smiling and of course bowing. Though here in Tokyo the bowing is much more token, especially amongst the young.
Even Japanese criminals are perfect. Well, perfect criminals. They are identified by choosing to be tattooed. For this reason if you, dear Gaijin, have tattoos you will not be allowed into a bathhouse. You are assumed to be a gangster. So the tattoo fixation which has so blighted the trendies of the West is absent here. More proof if more were needed that the Japanese are superior beings…
But it’s all about the surface – as long as everything is good at veneer level, the substrate can be just anything at all. On the surface, on top sits Hello Kitty. Saccharine, pink perfection, huge smile, love/me eyes, the essence of stereotypical girliness. And below, ah, there lurk the demons of the past. The silent U. The razor sharp edge of the katana, the treatment of prisoners of war, the spirit that drove the Kamikaze pilots, the suicide bombers of ww2 to sacrifice themselves for Imperial Japan.
How right could I be….the Demon of Half-Remembered Things has been tugging at my ear since I wrote the above. And blow me down, a bit of Googling and I found it! Here: “Honne 本音 & Tatemae 建前, literally translated as “true voice” and “constructed facade”, is the mindset that Japanese people are trained since young to master. An honest display of one’s true emotions and intentions is frowned upon and seen as willful and childish. Many Japanese would never express their “honne”, or at least not directly to the party in question. Tatemae is the word to express what that they think would benefit the situation, and would let them avoid any sort of confrontational interaction.” Yup. That explains it! From http://jpninfo.com/18987 so even the Japanese admit it. Publicly. (My memory reached back to “Shotokan’s Secret” by Bruce Clayton, which I read many years ago. A great read if you’re interested in the Japanese character as expressed through the Martial Arts.)
Uneasily sandwiched between the two, the Martial Arts.
Most modern Japanese will assert that the veneer is overcoming the substrate, that all that nastiness was the past but this smiling efficient tail-wagging pinkness is the present and the future. Perhaps. Japanese males certainly seem to confirm this: martial machismo appears to have been replaced by an almost feminine cuteness and vulnerability in younger men. And even when they sit crashed out on the underground at 9pm after 14 hours working their hearts out to prove Japan’s efficiency and superiority, they look so cute and vulnerable and perfectly incapable of ever raising a voice in anger.
Is it rather pathetically ignorant of me that I can still imagine a sarariman (man on a salary!) slicing through the body of a peasant with a katana to test its strength and sharpness as his recent ancestors did?
7…A Man in Love….
Despite all I have said, I need to say this: I love Japan. I love the Japanese. There, I said it. I am so proud of Humanity, that it could manufacture such amazing people; and they could create this country out of heart, soul, and above all, fearsome intelligence, adaptability and courage. And all in the Best Possible Taste, as Kenny Everett would have said. If I could only swap my body with one of them (age 20-30!) I would. I would learn the language. I would live in sweet Nezu. I would train with Kanazawa Kancho at SKIF, Kawawada Sensei at the Houitsugan Dojo, with forays to the JKA to train with the greats there. I would spend days exploring the islands. And if I reach 60, I would find a Buddhist Temple in Kyoto in which to finish my days as a monk.