Thursday, April 09, 2009

planet tokyo...

Am back in la-la land for the next three days. Not Los Angeles, to which the phrase is often attributed to, but Tokyo 東京 Japan, the largest (approx. 28 million people) and richest (1.9 trillion usd) metropolitan city in the world. A city always on the move, a city where sararimen in their suits work sixteen hour shifts and young kids sit on the train dressed in kospure costumes next to women in kimonos. Tokyo is a living, breathing contradiction. A city where the trains are always packed and it is nearly impossible to navigate the major transit hubs of Shinjuku, Shibuya, or Ikebukuro station, which have between 35 to 64 exits each.

Tokyo is also a city where hundreds of people will wait for a green light to cross regardless of whether any car is passing by. A city where you still have a sense of personal space (except on the trains) despite a population nearly doubles that of New York City. A city where crime is almost non-existent and the police ride bikes and do not carry guns. The city, for all its chaotic, 24-hour, blade runner-like, landscape of hyper-consumption and anime-dressed girls has an odd sense of wa, or harmony, that allows for some form of sanity to exist in such a densely populated area. This is because a special reverence for traditional crafts pervades Japanese aesthetics. Amid the clamor of technological and economic success, a respect for age, custom, and tradition still endures.

There exists there the phenomenon of cultural politeness. Some societies seem to value the lubrication needed for people to get along with one another. While in Tokyo, I was amazed at what I presume is the evolution of a society that has to live within a fairly finite space and in ever burgeoning numbers. In subways, on trains, on the streets and in taxis the evidence of polite society was present everywhere.

When someone on a train receives a call on a cell phone, they move to the back or front of the car to be out of earshot of everyone else. This is an example of social empathy. As I was walking in the Shinjuku district I saw many people wearing particle masks. You may think, as I did, that they are reacting to industrial pollution. But in fact the majority of people wearing masks in public places do so because they have colds and wish not to spread the germs.

My biggest problem adjusting from my Tokyo study aboard trip in 2004, back into the "survival of the fittest", cutthroat reality of New York City (and America), was the longing for a sense of peace and predictability. A place where the last thing people will do is inconvenience others. A place where people act like assholes on their own time. People don't talk or rap to themselves, bump into you in the street, scream into their cellphones on crowded buses. 

Seeing the culture of the largest city in the world makes you realize how little of human nature we take for granted is innate and how much of it is learned. Unfortunately, my usual moment of "snapping back into reality" occurs when the wonderful customs agents at JFK welcome me with their trademark bureaucratic indifference and attitude that makes me question: 

why the hell do I bother to come back?

"An apprentice near a temple will recite the scriptures untaught- 門前の小僧習わぬ経を読む。"

~Japanese Proverb

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