Sunday, November 06, 2011


When I first planned this trip and drew up my itinerary on the back of the proverbial napkin I had purposefully omitted Japan for a number of reasons. The first was the cost (see next post) and the second was that it was something of a dead end and would require me to double-back on myself, something I strive to avoid at all costs. In the end both concerns were justified but were unable to outweigh my curiosity for the country, its unique culture and bracing combination of old and new.

One of the most recognisable symbols of modern Japan: the shinkansen bullet train pulling into a Tokyo station.

Nothing exemplifies the new more thoroughly than Tokyo. The Tokyo conurbation is, with a population in excess of 35 million, by far the most populous metropolitan area in the world (if it were a separate country it would be the 35th largest between Algeria and Canada) and covering an area half the size of Wales. My first appreciable experience of this urban behemoth occurred before I even saw the city. I had hitched a ride with a friendly young couple who live in Saitama on the northern outskirts of the metropolis and we were arriving from the southeast. But instead of circumnavigating the city on a ringroad they drove straight through thanks to an extensive network of tunnels and elevated that criss-cross the city. It still took over an hour to traverse though.

The image most often portrayed in the media of Tokyo is of legions of black-suited salarymen marching mindlessly to the tune of the rat-race; skyscrapers clad in neon lights; claustrophobic capsule hotels; manga fanatics dressed up as their favourite anime characters; vending machines that sell everything imaginable, from drinks to meals to books and even clothes. While all these things do exist they are very much on the fringes and not indicative of Tokyo in general. Instead my impression of the city, from my hours tramping its less illustrious backstreets (saving money by not taking the metro), was one of quiet, (relatively) peaceful suburbanness. This is probably due in large part to the fact that, despite being almost completely levelled by the end of World War II, Tokyo was rebuilt along the same, dense, haphazard street layout of the feudal Edo period. Houses are low-rise and detached, and the narrow streets are dominated by cyclists (often ladies of a certain age) pedalling sedately along and who will not be hurried.

Tokyo's maze of irregular streets is guaranteed to get you lost. Even locals have to constantly consult the many public maps to make sure that they are going the right way.

But of course the main attractions are the quirky, off-beat "out there" sections of society and not the dull masses. And few places in the world do off-beat as well as Akihabara. With its bright skyscrapers of neon in a sea of blandness Akihabara was the inspiration for Ridley Scott's dystopian future in Blade Runner. Originally a district specialising in the sale of all things electronic it is now also the centre of the otaku culture that revolves around Japanese manga comics and its various offshoots. Most otakus are quite indistinguishable from other, normal people, but there are a couple of facets of the otakusphere that stand out. The first are the cosplayers - the word being a portmanteau of the English words costume and play. In a nutshell cosplayers like to dress up. Elves, maids, knights, schoolgirl sailor warriors and cute kittens and fluffy bears are all fodder for the cosplayer's vivid imagination as it searches for an outlet in Japan's conformist society. There is one particular place where cosplayers hang out on the weekends, but unfortunately the day I went it was raining and so the spectacle was pretty disappointing (animal costumes are probably quite tricky to dry). Nevertheless I did get my share of costumes on Halloween when a stroll around the party district of Roppongi produced a parade of disguises. Related to the cosplay phenomenon, but catering to those who like the idea of dressing up without having to do it themselves, are the famous maid cafes. Here you can come for a drink of coffee, a light meal, and often a choice of desserts, all in the setting of a primary school classroom with waitresses dressed either as maids or schoolgirls. If it sounds strange that's because it is.

A poster advertising a maid cafe in Akihabara.

I would have felt too out of my depth and awkward to go alone, but a local contact of mine, a guy named Yu, offered to take me to one. And as otaku culture has always held a fascination for me (I am a little geeky at heart) I jumped at the chance. The experience was a little strange for me. The atmosphere isn't sexual, at least for my tastes (though it could slide that way pretty easily), but having young, 18-25 year-old girls dress up to appear younger and then pay extra for "services" was a little unsettling. Not that these services are anything but tame: you can have your picture taken with a maid of your choice, whilst you wear kitsch cat ears and she strikes a pose with her hand near her face (I've come to realise that Japanese girls will always do some sort of hand gesture when they're having their pictures taken, usually a peace sign but also nibbling on a finger, twiddling with her hair or, my favourite, doing the cat, or nyan-nyan, pose) which she will then decorate with smiley faces; you can get a maid to decorate your cappuccino with chocolate at your table; or you can even get her to feed you. It's not sinister and in a way is a modern reinterpretation of the geisha experience, though instead of girls who undergo years of gruelling training learning to play the shamisen, properly wear the kimono and give delightful table-conversation being a maid at a maid cafe is usually reserved for freeters (underemployed youth) with a good knowledge of Sailor Moon characters. And for those of you who think that these are horribly sexist institutions will be happy to learn that there are male equivalents where the servers are exclusively young men (though there are fewer of these).

One of the other reasons I wanted to visit Tokyo was to see the (in)famous Yasukuni shrine. It was established in the Meiji period 140 years ago to enshrine the souls of those who died fighting for Japan, much like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Cenotaph in London and Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC. So far, so uncontroversial. The controversy surrounds the fact that enshrined amongst the fallen are 14 class A war criminals. Add to that the predisposition for leading politicians to visit the shrine and we have a recipe for continuing friction, especially amongst the countries that suffered at the hands of the Japanese during World War II. Though for me easily the most shocking part of the shrine complex is the attached museum, which records Japanese military history. The way it portrays events from World War I onwards has been hijacked by ultra-nationalists and is blatant historical revisionism with the sole purpose of exonerating Japanese actions. A great shame really as there are valid points to be made (e.g. that the post-WW2 trials were little more than victor's justice), but these are drowned out by the ridiculous rewriting of events. Instead the overwhelming feeling is one of pettiness and poor sportsmanship and that a genuine opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness is being missed.

The Yasukuni shrine at dusk. Despite the controversies surrounding it, there's no denying that it's a beautiful spot of tranquility in the heart of Tokyo.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am jealous! I am here, correcting papers (hei ho, that is sooo exciting) and you are in Japan. It seems that I have done wrong in my life ;). Enjoy!