Thursday, 3 February 2011

Tokyo, and Thoughts on Japan

Cecily summed Japan up better than I could hope to in her comment on my last post: (ignoring the part about watching US sitcoms, I don't know what she's talking about there as I am clearly a committed cultural explorer) "It shows the mixed culture of Japan: adopted modern culture, well-preserved tradition, bustle and peaceful. Mysterious as it is always. It is Japan".

I think most people's thoughts on Japan include the hyper bustling megatropolis of Tokyo (most likely the iconic view of Shibuya crossing) alongside a peaceful Zen Buddhist temple. Both views are correct and in reality not always that separate.
There's a distinct similarity between the Japanese cities I visited and I think that extends throughout the country - on any brief stroll you can see women in traditional dress alongside girls in decency-defying modern outfits, 6th Century Shinto shrines enveloped and overlooked by 21st Century business buildings, neon alongside lanterns and cyclists alongside supercars, and packed pachinko (pinball) parlours and seedy host/ess clubs alongside... well, there is no ancient mirror for that, I suppose they are a modern extension of an evening of entertainment with mahjong and a Geisha. Wherever you are, walking 1 street away from the well-trodden paths of tourists and locals alike can see you in a peaceful street of traditional homes lived in my stooped old men and women for generations.

As for the people themselves, as contradictory and fascinating as a modern Western people can get to a modern Westerner - the surface is placid, with a thick layer of incredible politeness and sensitivity to feeling and ego, respect and reverence for other people permeating all aspects of daily life. The conductors and food-trolley stewardesses bow on entering and exiting train carriages, all members of staff welcome each-and-every customer to walk through the door of any restaurant, shop or bank, friends young and old part with multiple bows, and all talking seems to be littered with excuse mes and thank yous. The subway is silent; everyone is using their mobile phone to text or browse but no one is talking or letting it ring aloud, and there are no audible conversations. More people seem to be asleep than usual, which I suppose hints at the long hours spent working and studying - 'Salarymen' working 12 hours a day and clinging onto a job following the economic bubble-bursting of the early '90s. This along with the unique way of interacting it seems has lead to the culture of men and women paying £30 to sit with a member of the opposite sex for nothing more x-rated than a chat - every red light area is packed with these and they seem to be patronised fairly regularly. Add to these the 'Maid Cafes' and Chikan (pervert) Bars: mocked-up train carriages where you can grope the 'sexy commuters', acting out what is a big problem on Japanese trains at rush hour - and the more underground, social repression-enforced quirks and perversions begin to appear below that placid surface.

Photos from Tokyo and words from Korea to follow, as it's late and beer awaits.

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