Tokyo Thoughts

Tokyo Thoughts

8/13/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

[Written on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Having spent the first year of my life in Japan and the next sixteen in the United States, it’s hard for me to tell whether I am now the furthest from or the closest I have ever been to home.]

It would be presumptuous of me to think that, after four days in Tokyo, I could write accurately about the nature of the city. It simply doesn’t work for one to fly 7,000 miles, take a few walks around the place and think himself an expert. Yet this metropolis is one that inspires people to tell about it, even if they’ve lived through too few earthquakes and squeezed into too few subway cars to really get a sense of it. Consider the following not as a comprehensive analysis, but as the hurried thoughts of a wide-eyed foreigner.

Tokyo makes an effective argument against the myth that this world is “small”—both in the geographic and cultural sense. There is nothing petit about Tokyo. New York has taller skyscrapers, perhaps, but Tokyo has 400 square miles—by my estimate—of hard-packed urban development. Shinjuku station, the most crowded subway hub in the world, has over 50 exits. There is a pedestrian crossing here so large that a nearby building has a television on its façade, broadcasting the foot traffic. The fish market alone is larger than the “downtown” areas of many cities.

But Tokyo also denounces the small world myth in the sense that the city may as well be on another planet. This is a city where even the cashiers bow at you; where policemen and custom officials wear cartoon mascots on their sleeves; where “Love 3” is a hot-selling video game; where men can be seen wearing schoolgirl uniforms; where fancy restaurants serve dinner live and twitching; where run-of-the-mill toilets spray your bottom and where fancy ones flush; where 6 million vending machines (an actual figure) will deposit anything from coffee to iPod accessories. There are those cities where you can look around you, smile and proclaim: “You know, these people might not speak our languages, but they really are just like us.” That’s certainly not the case with Tokyo, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And it is the people, not the skyscrapers, not the technology, not the food, that make Tokyo a place worth seeing. It took some time for me to realize this; at first, my neck was craned looking for monuments, museums and other tourist attractions. The real attraction was all around me.

Imagine all of the citizens of Canada packed into the corner of an island, and you’ve got a sense of the population of Tokyo. It does not do justice to the city merely to say, “this place is crowded.” Tokyo is not just crowded. Tokyo is squeezed to the point where that prodigal can of sardines would seem roomy in comparison. The subway lines hire “pushers” to help the rush hour crowd get through the doors and onto the train. Come rush hour, the sidewalks turn into a bobbing array of black heads and white shirts. Denver and Chicago have room to expand, but Tokyo, with the bay on one side and farmers with protected land on the other, can only grow inward. The city has its cases of sprawl, but the houses are packed neatly together without a hint of wasted space.

These tens of millions of people have a funny way of keeping in touch. Tokyo is a city connected, from the rat’s nests of wires linking house to house to the subway lines sewn through downtown; from the futuristic cell phones pressed against every other ear to the traditions of family support that keep even the busiest households together. It must be hard to find any quiet time alone, though I’m sure the Japanese try.

Not that the capital of Japan has forgotten its roots as the feudal hub of Japan. The imperial Palace is the city’s centerpiece, with cool parks and a swan-inhabited moat. In paying homage to their ancestors in urban shrines, the Japanese pay homage to the days when their ancestors walked the streets as feudal heads and spiritual authorities, not just businesspeople and construction workers. One would imagine that Tokyo embodies a conflict between the traditional and the modern, between the palace grounds and the skyscrapers that neighbor it. Instead, I saw both halves of the city reflected in one another. Office workers and schoolchildren visit the shrines and cross the Imperial moat. Likewise, there is a trace of national pride and ambition in the political centers of old that match the modern atmosphere of the city. Tokyo’s success, I feel, resides in its ability to adapt to—no, invent the new while retaining its heritage and traditions. All while featuring cute, friendly cartoons on store windows and advertisements.

The future may not be as kind to the city. With the economy slumping worldwide and Japan’s birthrate expected to plummet, Tokyo may find its status slipping as economic centers in China, India and Singapore forge ahead. For now, at least, the city is enjoying life at the top of the population and economic charts. Better yet, it seems to be enjoying life in general—cramped and hurried though that life may be.

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