Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Tokyo’

Thoughts on Life in Tokyo

Takeshita-dôri in Harajuku. Back to a manageable, pleasant level of crowds. This is more like what it was when I came to Tokyo the first time in 2003; in recent years, it’s gotten so packed-solid crowded with tourists that it’s become an area to avoid. But during Covid, ironically,
it can be enjoyed again.

It’s been a long time since I’ve kept up with this blog in any way. So, starting to catch up a little. Here’s a post I wrote way back in October, but it’s basically still true today.

I’ve been in Tokyo for more than a year now. Almost a year and a half. I can’t believe it. The longest stretch I’ve ever spent outside the US.

Of course, this is like my eighth time or something being in Tokyo, so it’s not the same as almost any other city…

But what does the city feel like after being here for so long? In some respects it feels too ordinary, like I’ve gotten used to it and it’s lost a sense of adventure to some (albeit only partial) extent. But at the same time, I do still very much feel like someone still finding their feet. Like someone who’s still visiting, or who hasn’t necessarily gained a deeper, stronger familiarity with the city than a year ago. Granted, I think a lot of this has to do with the Covid situation. Here in Tokyo, we’ve never had a real serious lockdown, and we still don’t now. Even during those weeks/months when I was more seriously trying to avoid public transportation and to avoid sit-down restaurants, etc., even at those times I still went for walks, experienced the city in a sense. I wonder how my familiarity with the city, my feeling of living here, might be different if this pandemic never happened, and if I might have spent more of this past year and a half more actively hanging out with friends, going out to restaurants and museums and so forth in a more lively fashion; then again, we’re researchers and full-time workers, and so forth, and even in non-Covid times it probably would have been a lot of just day-in day-out regular workdays.

In any case, with the pandemic or without, on some level I suppose I have gotten more familiar with, more used to the city, but that said, it feels more ordinary, not less. I might have expected that gaining the cultural capital of being so familiar with Tokyo would feel cool, amazing, empowering, but instead it just feels ordinary. 

The imperial palace moat at Ichigaya. An area deeply nostalgic for me from my very first time in Japan.
I never tire of seeing the trains running right along the water.

Sure, I can go visit anywhere in the city and find my way around no problem, but I could do that before. And I’m not too unfamiliar with various archives, etc., even having some sense, some image in my mind of what’s nearby in each neighborhood. I can walk around in certain neighborhoods – certainly not the whole city! but certain areas – and just sort of know what’s around the next corner, or where to find a bathroom nearby or whether there’s a good café I know nearby. 

And I don’t think my language skills have gotten all that much better in the one year I’ve been here. I’ll blame it on the pandemic, that I’ve been spending so much time isolated away. And I do plan on taking sanshin classes and/or Uchināguchi classes once we can, and I very much hope that that might be a good angle for improving my Japanese by meeting and interacting with Japanese classmates. But in the meantime, I dunno, it’s just a weird feeling to think about being here for a full year, and what my relationship with the city has become.

Akamon, the famous red gate of University of Tokyo’s main campus.

Read Full Post »

I’ve actually grown quite used to this staying-at-home life these past, well, let’s call it two months. I don’t know what it is exactly about this apartment, but I feel I’ve sort of lucked out, somehow it’s been a very comfortable place to be spending so much time in these last X weeks. Not too small or too dark or too anything… and not too far from the supermarket, convenience store, etc. either. I’m glad I didn’t have to do stay-at-home in my previous apartment (dorm room). It would have been fine, no doubt. Of course. But somehow I do think I’ve been much happier here.

And I’m of course not the only one.

I do feel weird saying so, of course, since it was just today that the New York Times published a list of one thousand names of those killed in the US by the coronavirus – it fills the entire front page of the newspaper, and it’s still only 1% of the dead. Looking through visualizations of it, one name at a time, each with a short one-sentence obituary, is numbing. Among 100,000 people you’ll find those of every age, every race and ethnicity, every walk of life. People who made great discoveries and accomplishments, people who did incredible things for their friends and family. People who relished in their hobbies and interests. People who were taken from us far far too soon, and people who might have had a good few more years if not for this. And so many of them, of course, forced to suffer their last X days or weeks without direct contact with their loved ones. … The crisis in the United States, and in many parts of the world, is far from over. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. For now. For now, thus far, thankfully, I have not fallen ill and neither have any of my family members, nor, incredibly, have I lost any friends. Astonishingly lucky, if “luck” is even the right word.

So, what can I say? It’s a weird place to be in, and I don’t mean to sound too privileged or out of touch… I’m just being honest about my situation. Thankfully, I’m far from the only one who has survived through this whole crisis unscathed (thus far), and whose experience (thus far) has been simply one of adjusting to a new normal, working from home rather than going to the office, and so forth. I’ve been cooking real meals a lot more; nothing too fancy, but even so, a little bit, here and there. Made some pasta sauce from scratch; I think it was too much bother, actually, in the end.

The Kandagawa, near Edogawabashi.

And now, Japan has just lifted the State of Emergency. We’ll see what happens in the coming days, but as of right now at least I haven’t heard anything at all about any museums, libraries, archives, or campuses reopening. To be honest, as much as I have been looking forward to visiting museums, archives, and libraries again, and to doing some traveling, I am not really looking forward to having to start commuting again, 9-to-5, to the office. In a sense, I feel like I’m only just now really starting to hit my stride – or, let’s call it a second wind, or third – in terms of getting used to the routine of being home. I wonder how long I’ve got before the office opens up again. I guess we’ll find out.

In the meantime, I’ve been avoiding public transportation entirely for I don’t know how long; at least six weeks or so, maybe closer to eight. And I’ve been walking places. Thought about getting a bicycle; this would have been the time for it, while there are fewer people on the road, but there’s nowhere at my apartment building to park a bike. So, anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of walking.

It’s been an interesting experience. 

Some random street corner somewhere in Bunkyô-ku.

Tokyo is, certainly, a city full of exciting things to see and do and experience, when they’re open. Hop on the subway and venture out to museums, bars, art galleries, theater, all sorts of different sites and institutions. But walking, Tokyo is nothing like, for example, Kyoto. Kyoto you can walk around and just enjoy the experience of the architectural environment of Kyoto. The architecture, the machinami as they say in Japanese – I wish we had a good word for it in English, but it means something like the “street scene.” Like a skyline, but from down on the ground – the visual experience of the street as a whole, from one block to the next or across whatever distance, longer or shorter. Here in Shinjuku/Bunkyo/Chiyoda-ku, the machinami is very much the same as you walk. Sure, it depends on what neighborhoods you’re in exactly, but for the most part, branching out from where I am living now, I found just more and more of the same busy main streets, and quiet but architecturally disunited, aesthetically chaotic, residential neighborhoods, all of it very modern, with bits of more traditional architecture here and there… Chaotic and all mixed up, but largely a mix of the same things, or mixed up in the same way. Lots and lots of grey concrete. And where there is a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, it’s usually set back a ways from the road, so it doesn’t really enter much into the feel of the neighborhood – doesn’t break up the endless rows of concrete & glass storefronts.

Back in the pre-corona days, there were a number of times when I walked from Omotesando or Harajuku through whatever in-between neighborhoods, to Shibuya, and from Shibuya through Shinsen to Komaba, and then maybe even on past there to Shimo-Kita, and it was interesting and kind of fun to see how the neighborhoods changed as you walked, from some of the busiest areas in the city to quiet residential neighborhoods, from the quirky youth energy of Harajuku to the upscale vibe of Omotesando, but I haven’t found that sort of experience walking around these neighborhoods…

Backstreets in a residential neighborhood in Setagaya-ku.

Another thing I noticed initially on these walks is that with my mask on I couldn’t smell the incidental smells so easily, or at all. One of the pleasant parts of going for a walk, one of the things that made me want to, is just all the incidental springtime smells you smell – flowers, food, incense. So, that felt like a terrible loss – missing out on the entire Spring, even more so than we already are. Fortunately, now that I’ve been wearing a different mask, I can smell it better.

You can capture sights and sounds to a certain extent on photo and video, but smells are one of those things you absolutely can’t. And there are so many smells here in Japan that I can’t even identify, can’t even necessarily say I miss when I’m back in the States, but when I’m here and I smell them, all sorts of memories come flooding back of previous times spent in Japan. The faintest of scents carried on the breeze alongside the warmth of the spring sun. That steamy smell in the air as you walk past a ramen place. Food smells, of course. But also, and I feel weird to say it, but clean smells, too; not that I’m yearning for the smell of industrial chemicals, but rather that whatever they use to clean places here makes me think of shops and restaurants and campus buildings over the course of my many trips in Japan. Temple incense, of course. But also countless smells I couldn’t name at all, but just which remind me of spring, and of fun and enjoyment and adventure of past times.

At Iidabashi Station. Feels weird watching trains go by. I haven’t ridden a train in weeks.

This is my fourth time living in Japan for any serious length of time. It’s interesting, and weird, and kind of disappointing, to realize how ordinary it feels in a certain sense. My first trip to Japan, I lived here in Tokyo for four months as a study abroad student. As I’ve probably talked about too many times before on this blog, it was my first time overseas on my own, my first time living anywhere on my own that was more than 4 hours drive from home (let alone overseas); it was a brand new city, a brand new country, and I was young and just so excited by everything. And, especially in light of the fact that I didn’t think I would necessarily ever come back. I thought this was like my one big adventure, and that after that I would just go back home to New York and be a New Yorker the rest of my life (something which a part of me is still very attached to, but that’s a matter for a whole other post).

The second time, it was a whole five years later; after five long years of thinking I might never go back to Japan again, boom, I was living the dream, living in Yokohama for nearly a full year. Again, definitely felt like an adventure. While I was spending the vast majority of my time in class or at home doing homework (or I suppose in various cafes? I don’t really recall), and even when I wasn’t, I was largely in Yokohama and not right in the heart of things in Tokyo (or Kyoto or Osaka or Naha), even so, I learned and gained so much during that year and had an incredible good time. It was my first time living in Japan for more than just four months, my first time on my own as a college graduate, as someone a bit more mature and independent, as someone with far better Japanese language ability than when I was in college. I was *living* in Japan, not just having some crazy study abroad adventure. … And then, I came back for three or four or six weeks at a time for quite a few summers. Six weeks in Kyoto back in 2010 (I can’t believe it was so long ago!) definitely gave me a feel for the city, felt like I was “living” there and not just visiting. I feel like I know that city better than most I’ve visited for less time (makes sense). I would *love* to live there again. But I’m not quite counting it.

Third time, was in 2016-2017 (I want to say “recently” but I guess it’s not quite that recent anymore…), when I was here on fellowship for dissertation research. Spent six months in Okinawa and five in Tokyo, blogged about it a lot. In part because Okinawa was so new – my first time spending more than a week there, my first time getting to really live there and experience it more deeply/broadly – this third time, too, was quite the adventure. In all of these trips, I felt like I was gradually becoming more and more a Japan Scholar, or Japan Hand, or Okinawa hand, or whatever the hell term you want to use. I’m not actually a big fan of the “China hand” “Japan hand” term, but in any case, it’s direct experience of having lived here, and traveled around Japan, experience of meeting people and making connections and experiencing all different sides of life here, that is so crucial to being … well, I hesitate to use the word “expert,” but, it’s crucial to feeling valid and justified in saying you’ve had those experiences. You know your way around.

This fourth time, I was excited to open a new chapter, to live and *work* in Japan for the first time. To be here on something other than a student or cultural activities or tourist visa; to actually live and work here. I’m not sure that I have any intentions of staying for the truly long-term, but at least it doesn’t feel temporary the way a 10- or 11-month program does. I don’t have any institution to go back to in the States right now. I’m for the first time in years and years not currently affiliated with or enrolled in any school in the US. I am University of Tokyo staff. A weird thing to consider. For the first week or so of this stay, it was really exciting. Look at me, I’m University of Tokyo staff. I’m one of those people now, who lives and works in Japan. Look at me, I’m going to go to conferences and it’s going to say University of Tokyo on my name badge and on my business cards.

Some beautiful but small and so far as I know historically non-significant random temple somewhere in the area.

But, being here, I really don’t feel like I’ve necessarily become all that much more … what’s the word? Local knowledge? Cultural capital? I don’t feel like I necessarily know Tokyo any better than I did before, like I’m becoming more expert. Maybe it’s still too early to say. I think the work environment has a lot to do with it – I spend far far far more time just going to the office and going home and going back to the office than I do networking; I haven’t gone to all that many conferences or lectures or workshops or anything, nor have I gone to very many meet-ups, stand-up comedy nights, or anything like that where I might meet people and get to know a scene outside of academia. I’m sorry to say it, but I find myself still very attached to the expat community; and I actually really like it that way. I love meeting other visiting scholars, expats, whatever word you want to use. And while I absolutely don’t want to live in some segregated expat bubble – I’m certainly not going to only English-speaking restaurants or Western-style cuisine places or something like that; I’m not trying to live an American or European life in Tokyo – I’m trying to live a Tokyo life and to enjoy and appreciate Tokyo alongside other people who appreciate it similarly to how I do, and with whom I can speak comfortably and stress-free in English. It’d be nice to have Japanese friends. It’d be wonderful. Especially if they might be true friends, to really meet up with and hang out with, and not have that awkwardness of being professional colleagues/coworkers rather than friends; it would certainly do wonders for my conversational Japanese. I feel like in Okinawa it’d be a lot easier. In part because there are fewer expats around, haha. But, when I was at Ryûdai, there was a small close community of ten or so Okinawan History grad students, and I sat in on their seminars and so forth, and every now and then they invited me along to welcome parties and going away parties, to end of year parties and karaoke nights and so forth. I wasn’t fully, truly, a member of their grad student cohort – I was only a visitor – but even so, living on a campus in a small town, if and when people are going to go out, well, they certainly didn’t have to invite me along but it was very kind of them to include me in the party as it were. And I think if I were to live there longer, one way or another, on campus or off, I would get to know people. Naha is just that small of a city, and that friendly and open of a place, I think; I mean, it’s complicated, because on the one hand, maybe as a tourist they’re just being friendly because they’re friendly to all tourists, but then again on the other hand maybe because there are so many tourists some people might appreciate me a bit more because I’m more serious, not in Okinawa for just a fleeting funtimes vacation. … Anyway, once this whole coronavirus thing is over with, maybe hopefully I can find a sanshin teacher here in Tokyo, and then maybe (fingers crossed) I might be able to actually make friends with people through that. I think having something in common, having a cultural group through which you meet people, is probably a good way to do it.

Meanwhile, I’m also not sure my conversational Japanese is getting any better. At all. … I didn’t mean for this post to be one about complaining, or being down on myself. Rather, I was thinking more along the lines of just isn’t it interesting how ordinary my life in Tokyo feels right now, rather than it being the kind of adventure that my previous times were. Isn’t it interesting how it feels so ordinary compared to what my excitement was in the first week or two. I think that not really being all that integrated into any kind of life on campus, but just keeping my head down and doing my work has contributed to this a lot. I also think that once things open back up again, and we’re able to travel again, and to have workshops and conferences and all the rest, that will help a lot. Being able to use this time while I’m here to meet people, to make connections and become situated as a member of a local network, and also being able to use this time to travel and get to see more of Japan, will help a lot. I think. We’ll see. We’ll get there.

Read Full Post »


I’d been thinking I wouldn’t post anything about the coronavirus epidemic, since I’m no expert at all, and since, well, I just have other things to do. But I suppose it would be good to record for posterity, so to speak, how I was feeling, how things were going, at this particular time. I do often go back through old posts myself, to remind myself when something happened, or how I was thinking about it at a certain time. Plus, I felt I should post something about it before I start posting more posts about various other topics – I’m thinking that this self-isolation provides a good opportunity to go revisit old drafts from months or even years ago that never got published, which means my next few posts might be on really scattered, different topics. Before I do that, I thought I should post something about the current situation.

(Note: Please don’t take any of the information I’m presenting here as accurate. This is not a news report, or advice from an expert in the field. This is my personal recollections of what I think I’ve seen and heard, and how I’m feeling, and how I’m doing. It’s not about getting it right. For *information*, go check out some real proper news sources and the like.)

It’s March 24 right now. I’m not even sure exactly how long it’s been since we first started hearing about cases in China, and then cases in Japan. It’s been a weird experience. Most museums are closed, most theatre performances and other events are cancelled. Many schools are closed. Travel restrictions are tight. South Korea has implemented widespread testing and lots of other good procedures, and everyone seems to be hailing them for doing it right. China, where the outbreak began and was initially the worst, seems to be seeing a very significant decline in the severity of the situation. Meanwhile, Israel has blocked off nearly all travel in or out of the country, and Italy and Ireland (and now, if I have it right, Spain and France as well, as well as parts of the US) have gone on even fuller lockdown, with mandatory quarantine procedures in place for, if I’m understanding correctly, *everyone* in Italy, all stores closed except for pharmacies and groceries, and from what we’re hearing the medical facilities are just completely overwhelmed – more sick people in need of emergency treatment than there is emergency equipment (and even just space, i.e. hospital beds themselves) to go around. The situation sounds absolutely horrendous. Iran seems to be digging mass graves.

The Trump administration’s response has started to come around, maybe, a bit, but is still rightfully being roundly criticized from all sides (well, most sides – not from the “Dear Leader can do no wrong” camp among the Republican Party and Fox News, but their horrific misinformation campaign is a whole other story); but things are getting worse in New York, and elsewhere. I read recently that New York had something like 5% of all confirmed cases in the entire world, and overall a higher “attack” rate (i.e. confirmed cases as a percentage of total population, as opposed to confirmed cases as a percentage of those tested, though I think that number’s also high in NY). I’m worried about my family.

Anyone who’s doing full-on hanami parties right now is being terribly irresponsible. But if I should happen upon a nice tree on my way to the supermarket, my only one little outing from the apartment the entire day, with a mask on, that’s okay, right?

But here in Japan, or at least in Tokyo, it’s hard to know what to think, what to believe. I spent at least a week, maybe two, being just terribly anxious, nervous, stressed out about the whole situation until I finally decided to cancel my trip to Boston and New York to attend the annual AAS conference. As it turned out, the conference got canceled anyway. But worrying about it was driving me mad. On the one hand, everyone keeps saying very scary things about how horrible this disease is, how it’s far more contagious than SARS or Ebola and far more deadly than your typical flu – between these two factors combined, making for a serious genuine pandemic threat.

I remember thinking three years ago, that as dangerous as Trump is, at least we don’t have a massive crisis such as a pandemic for him to fuck up. … Well, now, here we are.

And as for the Japanese government response as well, the US and Japan stand out at the bottom of the list among major developed-world countries in testing the fewest people. I’ve heard countless anecdotes about people both in Japan and the US who are being denied testing for the coronavirus on account of they don’t match precisely the right criteria, e.g. they don’t have severe enough symptoms or they haven’t been to China recently… These are people who are afraid they might infect others, and yet many are being told to just go home. I, also, was told by the US Embassy’s Crisis Hotline themselves that so long as I didn’t have symptoms I was safe to fly – no consideration at all given to whether I might be asymptomatic but contagious. (Granted, this was around March 6 or so, before things got more serious, but even so, I think it was serious enough already at the time that the nonchalant attitude of the fellow on the phone was just confusing to me: is this a concern, or not? The CDC, the Embassy, at that time, were still at a very “light” stage of things, saying “if you’re sick, then maybe quarantine, but if you’re not, no problem,” or something to that effect. Frankly, even all these weeks later, my office is largely saying the same; they haven’t suggested everyone work from home, they haven’t closed down the campus. In any case, the point is, especially at that earlier time, I felt like I was getting really mixed messages, and not clear information, and I found it very stressful.)

Many people are saying that the Abe administration, like Trump, has its eye mainly on preventing panic, protecting the economy, and protecting that the Olympics might still go forward – rather than actually doing what’s right, or what’s needed, for the safety of the people. (Now, finally, on Mar 22-24 or so, the government has started to shift from that, saying they may need to postpone the Olympics; I expect this will become even more solid within the next few days.) A lot of people don’t trust the government right now; and after Fukushima, why should they? I did see one article explaining that, actually, the Japanese government is operating in a reasonable and rational way, testing enough people to get a strong sense of the outbreak as a whole, not on the individual/medical level but on a society-wide epidemiological level, so that they can manage the spread. I’m not sure I buy it, but it was interesting to get a real explanation at least.

A snapshot from the live feed camera over Shibuya Crossing, right now, tonight Mar 24. Not nearly as busy as I expect it typically would be on a Tuesday evening, but still plenty of people out and about, not actively making sure to stay X meters away from one another; many of them not wearing masks, in part because so many stores are completely sold out of them.

But even as we keep hearing all this scary stuff, and even as so many events have been canceled, institutions closed, people encouraged to work from home or to adopt shifted working hours (so as to avoid such crowds at rush hour), even so, life goes on here in Tokyo largely unaffected. I’m curious (and terrified) to see how this might change in coming days and weeks, but for now, even as so much of the world is in lockdown to one extent or another, here, restaurants and shops are open, and a lot of people are still out and about, albeit fewer than the massive crowds we’re normally used to. To a certain extent, I’m glad. First of all, because for the first couple of weeks of March, I was right in the middle of moving apartments, and if stores closed, utilities companies or shipping/delivery companies stopped operating, or if more so than that we actually went into some kind of citywide lockdown situation, I would have gotten stuck either in a new apartment with no bed, no appliances, no internet, no hot water, or in my old apartment which I might have needed to vacate by March 16 (who knows exactly what exceptions might have been made… especially if they need the room so someone else can move in and themselves not be screwed by the situation). So, I’m glad I was able to go around and do my shopping for furniture, and to have appliances delivered, and to have the electric company answer the phones (especially since f***ing TEPCO has decided to not have any in-person customer service centers anymore, and that’s long before coronavirus).

Secondly, I was for a time glad things are still more or less running like normal, because in the early stages of this, or even in a situation like Italy’s where the hospitals are totally overrun and the whole medical system is breaking down, even there I would venture that the externally-imposed closings, quarantines, etc. and not the epidemic itself exacerbate the difficulty for most people multiple multiple times over. Between people who can’t work, people whose small businesses (or not so small businesses) are going to be terribly strained or even go under, and so forth. But, that said, of course, we now understand that it’s **essential**, absolutely essential, to lock things down as much as possible. We need to practice social distancing, on a society-wide level, and probably more than just “social distancing,” we need to isolate ourselves, self-quarantine, as much as possible, if we all, as a city, as a country, are going to slow down the spread of this disease enough that we can manage to keep it at bay enough that the medical system won’t get overburdened. Flatten the curve, as people have been saying – so that instead of an insane number of cases all at once, maybe there might be more cases that don’t happen until later, until after there’s been more time for preparation, the development of treatments, etc., and until after X number of people with the virus have recovered [or died, I’m sorry to say] and thus opened up hospital beds, ventilators, etc.

But what’s scary is the false sense of security. As some have started to say in the last few weeks, with a situation like this, it very often can feel perfectly fine right up until it’s not. Italy in particular, but Iran and other places as well, saw such rapid changes of circumstances over a matter of just days. Going right from having a nationwide number of cases in the 2- or 3-digits to 4-digits in a matter of days. Going from cautionary measures to full lockdown. New York, too. The days bleed together, time feels like it’s flowing at such a very different rate than usual, but I think if I remember right it was only a few days ago that New York was just not quite there yet. And now they’ve got 5% of the cases in the world, 5x the attack rate of most other places, and a city-wide “stay at home” order or whatever exactly they’re calling it in New York.

Japan seems to be way behind the curve, in terms of many workplaces still saying “stay home if you’re sick,” and just wash your hands and be careful, rather than “we’re closing down. No one come in to work” or the like. I gather that a great many workplaces – or mine, at least – haven’t budged from that level for weeks. But does that mean it’s because things are actually okay here? Are we going to get put on lockdown tomorrow or the next day or the next day? I’ve been asking myself that question for at least a week and a half. It’s impossible to know.

The 7-11 near my new apartment, with plenty of canned mackerel and Monster energy drinks right up front by the door, because obviously that’s what people need to be stocking up on the most.

It’s a strange feeling, to be amidst such an incredibly uncertain, stress-inducing, emotional time, and yet at the same time find it actually pretty relaxing. I don’t know if it’s really appropriate to compare, but when my mother passed away, it was in mid or late April, I don’t actually remember the date at all, but while it was in some respects the darkest, saddest day in my entire life, it was a sunny, breezy, happy day. The last few days before I heard that she’d gotten worse, before I knew that end was near, happened to be days of sunny warm weather, flowers blooming, birds singing.

When I read about the current pandemic situation online, or put my thoughts to worrying about it, I am in fact terribly worried, terribly scared, about how long this global societal shutdown might last, and the economic consequences. If “this is my life now” for so many of us, for how long might that remain the case? To say it might be a few weeks or a few months, well, that feels manageable. It’s only temporary, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.Though even if it does last just a few weeks, or a few months, who knows how that might actually feel on a day-by-day basis. The days certainly seem to be flowing much more slowly lately. The faster events change, the easier it is to feel like “I can’t believe it was only X days ago that this or that event happened.” Here it is, March 24, and so much has happened, I can’t believe it’s been only X days since we first heard of Italy going into lockdown, only X days before that that Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race, only X days before that that we first heard about the first cases coming out of China. … And now we’re seeing reports that according to some studies, some extrapolation models, we may need to stay in lockdown for up to 18 months (!?!), until such time as the vaccine can be mass-produced and administered to everyone in society, if we want to avoid millions of deaths. And, of course, that comes with tons of complications, whether the virus will mutate and the vaccine won’t be as effective.. All kinds of things. And in the meantime, whether it’s a (relatively mild) several-week or several-month slow down, or something like an 18 month lockdown, the economy is going to suffer hugely. How can we even think about the broader societal, economic, impact of so many small businesses going out of business, so many individuals losing their jobs (and then their homes, going bankrupt, etc., whatever may happen)? On a national level, on a national/global history level, this isn’t some blip. This has the potential to radically alter the balance of power, the quality of life, the status of conditions in many countries all around the world. As a historian and as a world traveler, I can’t help but think about that.

But as a person, of course, I’m also terribly worried and scared for my family, and more broadly for my friends and colleagues. My family has been lucky. From 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy to countless storms I don’t remember the names of, we’ve never lost a family member in any such disaster, and we’ve never lost our house. But my father and most of my aunts+uncles are over 65; my brother is young, and has no particular dramatic health conditions; but even so, contrary to earlier reports from China, Korea, and elsewhere, I’m now hearing that some significant percentage of young people who’ve gotten sick, 20-30% in some places, as high as 50% in some places, have developed truly severe or critical (whatever the precise technical term may be) cases.

If I should lose my father or my brother in this, I don’t know what I would do. It would be world-changing for me. I can’t even think about it. It would be so devastating.

And beyond that, I am fortunate to have so many friends and colleagues all around the world. Hearing that *any* of them have gotten sick and died from this – or even “just” lost their job, lost their house, whatever it may be – is a horrific thought. I just hope and hope and hope that we’ll all be okay, that we’ll all make it out okay at the end.

Not much to look at, I suppose, but, fwiw, on the left, some very simple french toast I made, with real genuine Canadian maple syrup which was a gift from a friend. On the right, my workspace, my world for the next X weeks.

But, even with all of that in mind, I can’t help but find this “self-isolation,” for the time being at least, to be rather relaxing and productive. Even while I am continuing to press forward on the work I’m supposed to be doing for work, devoting more or less the normal amount of time that I would to it (something like 20-30 hrs/wk), it’s wonderful to not commute, it’s wonderful to not feel that pressure of being in the office. I’m extremely fortunate to have a work situation where my supervisors aren’t present to physically see whether I’m ever in the office or not (they work in a different building), my coworkers aren’t interested in policing me or anything, and even on paper, officially, my schedule is pretty flexible: get the work done for our project, but also nip off and do what you need to as often as you need to, to continue making progress on your own research. That’s also part of the job, part of the professional obligations/expectations. I count myself exceptionally grateful to have landed such a position. But even despite the flexibility of that position, there’s still something about working a 9-to-5, going into the office, trying to devote yourself to a single project for 8 hours a day, that’s just tiring and draining… Being home, I find myself much more productive. And, we’ll see how I feel in a few more days, cabin fever and so forth, but for now at least, telling myself to stay home and to not go out to cafes or anything – forcing myself to stay home – has meant I’m not wasting time on my off-days traveling to some other neighborhood, walking around looking for a cafe to work at, getting antsy after just a couple hours, walking around looking for a different cafe to work at… or going to museums or anything else. So, while I’m definitely sad that so many institutions are closed and am missing that, the art, the theatre, the research trips, the little trips to explore different cafes/restaurants, being home means I’m actually getting a lot more done – whether that means actual work, or if it means blogging, connecting with friends, whatever it may be, I’m getting things done that I haven’t otherwise. And it’s a very nice feeling.

I know that’s an absurd note to end on. But this entire post is just tentative. Just some thoughts, somewhat stream of thought. Not truly fully considered, and it’s not meant to be. Just some thoughts, for now. We’ll see how things develop.

In the meantime, I am thinking about my friends and family all around the world. I hope you are all safe and healthy. I hope that you all remain so. This crisis is unbelievable. Larger and crazier and deadlier than most things we’ve actively, directly, had to experience and deal with in our lives. For most of us, anyway. Of course, there are those who are refugees from warzones, and who knows how many other different stories. But I think about my friends who are doctors and healthcare professionals otherwise, living an incredibly different life from the rest of us right now, devoting all of their time and energy, even more so than usual, to trying to save as many lives as possible amidst nearly impossible conditions. And I think of all the people I’ve met, however tangentially, in my life and in my travels, who for one reason or another, in one way or another, don’t have the luxury to just stay home. People without job security, people without health insurance. I’m worried about my home country, and about Japan, and about our world. But at the same time, I’m also at home, sleeping and eating and watching Netflix, and making more progress on my work than I have in months. I think the most any of us can do is to just do what we can, make do as best as we can.

Read Full Post »

Moving Back to Tokyo

The iconic Akamon, or red gate, entrance to the University of Tokyo.

I should have posted this months ago, but I strangely felt I didn’t have that much to say on the topic, I guess. And perhaps more to the point, things just got very busy, hectic, and so here we are, almost at the end of four months since I moved here to Tokyo, and I’m finally posting this now. Oh well, better late than never, I suppose. Even though I guess I’m not saying all that much of substance here, still I wanted to get it down, for posterity if for nothing else.

I’ve started my new job in Tokyo, and things are going really well. I cannot say how truly I feel I lucked out with this position, how fortunate I am. Being back in Japan is exactly the place I needed to be to regain a sense of calm, happiness, and balance after everything that happened in the previous few months. 

The Tokyo skyline as seen from high above Ichigaya.

As wonderful as it would have been to secure a proper tenure track position somewhere in the States, or a postdoc or whatever it may have been, and as happy as I could have been in any of those situations, I think that many of them would have involved “hitting the ground running,” the same levels of work and stress and endless busy-ness as in the final stages of the dissertation (if not moreso, what with class prep and everything). For any potential employers reading this, yes, I do think I would have done well, and strived, and been happy and successful in meeting such challenges, and I certainly look forward to hopefully getting such a position in the future, getting to teach students and engage with them and all the rest.
 
But for now, Tokyo is right where I need to be, to find my center and find myself again.

Getting some work done at the Aoyama Flower Market Teahouse.

I’m now a postdoctoral “Project Researcher” 特任研究員 at the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute 東京大学史料編纂所 working as part of a team on a project creating an international hub for the Ishin Shiryō Kōyō 維新史料綱要, a collection of some 30,000 entries summarizing in a day-by-day fashion the key events of Japanese (“national” political) history c. 1840-1870. I am not sure when any of the products of this work will become available to the public, but we are working on a glossary of terms relevant to the collection, and English translations of the entries. Whenever it does go live, a few years from now, you’ll be able to search in English (or romaji) and see at an easy glance what events are pertinent to your search terms. For example, search the name of a shogunate official such as Ido Satohiro and you can trace his key activities, promotions, reassignments, and so forth across the period. Search for a placename, such as Shimoda or Yokohama, or Ryûkyû, Tsushima, or Matsumae, and you can see a listing of the progression of events pertaining to that place across the period.

Copies of the Tsûkô ichiran, a compilation of Edo period diplomatic records.

And I’m continuing to plug forward on my own research. I guess I’ve been sidetracked the last couple of months, thinking, reading, and writing about Shuri castle, but I suppose that counts as “my own research” too. I’ll get back to thinking about Ryukyuan embassies, diplomatic ritual, and so forth soon.

In the meantime, everyone at the Hensanjo has been really quite kind and supportive, encouraging me to take time to do my own research, that that’s included in the position and counts as part of my job – I don’t need to be working on the Project all the time. So, I’ve already started making appointments with museums and archives to see more Ryukyu embassy procession scrolls, buying books, and scanning tons of articles and book chapters to read later.

Ever since I finished the dissertation, it’s been such an incredible weight off my shoulders. There’s no longer a pressure to produce something complete and polished by a set date, and now I can just go back to gathering more and building up and building around my knowledge of the subject, seeing what develops, seeing what comes together. It’s a real pleasure.

Read Full Post »

The first time I saw Lost in Translation, it was for me 100% about the city of Tokyo, and about my own nostalgia and love and longing for that city. I had had a whirlwind 4 months there as a study abroad student, my first time so far from home on my own, my first time in Japan, exploring and experiencing Tokyo in the way that I imagine many 20-year-olds do, running around in groups of five to fifteen, experiencing and enjoying everything. Tokyo that city of such energy and excitement, and it was just such an incredible time, one of the absolutely best times of my life thus far. And when Lost in Translation came out later that year, I didn’t know at that time whether I would ever be in Japan again.

So, for me at that time, Lost in Translation was all about re-living that experience, in a sense, taking in the lights and sounds and fun and enjoyment, and about identifying in a sense with these two characters for whom Tokyo is also very new and very strange… For me the movie was all highs and lows, fun and engaging, but also sad because it reminded me of something very exciting and also very engaging that I might never experience in the same way again – or, might not experience at all.

After all, the first time I went to Japan I never expected that I would ever go back. It was a crazy one-time adventure, something far beyond the bounds of anything I’d ever done, and indeed beyond the bounds of where either of my parents had ever traveled, or thought to. I went to college a mere four hours away from home (insisted on going out-of-state, because I did want to get away a little, but still went to Boston, a much “safer” choice in terms of big culture shock or whatever; didn’t even consider California or anywhere nearly that far away) … and I just always assumed that with the exception of this one crazy time in Japan, I’d come back home to the East Coast, and get a job in New York, and be “home” in New York the whole rest of my life.

The lights of Akihabara, from my first time in Japan, way back in 2003.

But I’m getting off-track. I have seen Lost in Translation several times since then, and I don’t really remember how I felt about it the third or fourth time. But now it’s been a long time since the last time, and, well, it’s interesting how incredibly different the film feels this time around.

I’m glad I never did end up watching it with my (now ex-)girlfriend. I had wanted to watch it with her because I wanted to share my love for Tokyo, share with her what the film meant to me in that way. But she’s very much the type to engage deeply with the characters’ emotions and motivations, their dramatic arcs and the overall emotional or interpersonal themes of a film, and watching it now, again, I can see those things so much more starkly than I ever did the first or second time I saw the film.

What exactly is this relationship? I had completely forgotten that Bob and Charlotte kiss at the end – a seemingly romantic kiss, not like the kiss on the cheek in the elevator a few scenes earlier. And watching it this time around, I got a much clearer sense of these two people, their relationship developing. Both of them, and the viewer, wondering how far it will go, or where it is going, or whether the both of them are losing interest in their own relationships. The scene where Bob is in the bath and on the phone with his wife, and she says something like “well, if you like it so much there, maybe you should just stay” – I had previously read that through the lens of how much I loved Japan, and basically just that she was being difficult or obnoxious or whatever because she didn’t “get” it. And similarly, I guess, the scene where Charlotte is at a shrine in Kyoto and she sees a Shinto wedding – I had taken that to be just one more element of how she is experiencing and appreciating Japan, and how the filmmakers are sharing with us that beauty, that peace, that experience. Watching it again, now, I realize the connection, where just a scene or two earlier, Bob and Charlotte had been talking about how marriage is difficult. And both of them are in such difficult places at this point in the film (well, throughout the whole film) in terms of how they feel about their partners, their relationships. And so she sees this newly married couple, and I suppose there’s supposed to be something unspoken there, about wishing and hoping that they’ll do better, that they’ll actually be happy … or something about how we all have difficulties, but it’s worth it, and it will be the same for them.

There are also these moments where Bob and Charlotte realize they don’t actually know each other that well – they surprise one another at the choices they make. Like when Bob sleeps with the red-headed singer from the bar.

I see even more clearly and strongly now how it’s not necessarily really a movie about Japan, or about Tokyo, but rather about people, and relationships, and it’s really a story that could be set almost anywhere in the world. Though Tokyo does present a particularly good location in terms of being very foreign, very different, and yet at the same time very comfortable and navigable.

That said, though, whether Japan or not, it *is* also a movie about a particular style or mode of experience. Most of the movie takes place inside the same hotel – at the bar, at the pool, inside their guestrooms. Hotel life can be extremely comfortable, luxurious even. That’s kind of the point. And they’re definitely staying at a really nice hotel. But it can also be sort of sterile and isolating. It’s one way of experiencing a place, and it’s certainly a valid experience, but it’s a very different one from experiencing the city in other ways. Yes, Bob and Charlotte do get out and meet people and go to some clubs, and so forth, and I suppose we can maybe assume that they get out and see and do a lot more, in between the scenes, that we never see. But then again, maybe they don’t. We’re supposed to believe that the entire film takes place over the course of just one week or so, and I haven’t counted how many days and nights we actually see them experiencing, but… I dunno, I think we maybe do get the sense that they really have spent most of their time in the hotel, that both of them are in a sort of frame of mind that they wouldn’t even know where to go, what to see, if they did get out. I don’t know if either or both of them are “depressed,” per se, but they’re definitely lost, and they’re definitely spending a lot of time in their rooms (or in the pool, or the bath, or the bar) just thinking and being alone…. So, they’re experiencing a very particular experience of the city. When they do go out, it’s a lot like my first time in Japan, I suppose, in terms of going out to bars and cafes and karaoke and just having a good time… Very different from my experience on later trips, where I speak the language and know my way around, and …

Bob in the hospital, waiting for Charlotte to get her x-rays done, holding a giant fuzzy owl he bought for her. Image from IMDb.

But, anyway, getting back to the relationship, it’s an interesting one. It’s kind of wonderful to see people having that kind of relationship, and it’s really kind of romantic in a way – I mean, in the sense of a fantasy, an ideal, that one is envious of, even if we put aside the ways in which it’s a romantic relationship in the sense of romance. Even putting aside the romance aspect, if we pretend it’s a slightly different movie from what it is, if we pretend that they stay (just) friends throughout the whole thing, keeping in mind after all the big age difference and that they’re both married and that the romantic relationship between them is therefore really kind of dangerous/cringey at times (I can’t count the times that I was thinking, yikes, Bob, be careful make sure you don’t accidentally cross a line. She’s 22, Bob! Not to mention the fact that Scarlett Johansson was under 18 when this was filmed…) … but pretending they were to stay just friends throughout the film, what a friendship that is. To take her to the hospital, in a foreign country, in a foreign language, and to do it while playing around in that way (with the wheelchair and so forth); ribbing on one another and messing around, and somehow knowing (I guess not knowing, but just because it’s scripted that it works out) that the other one won’t be offended… What a beautiful wonderful friendship. I’m not sure that I feel like I have any friends like that anymore, who I’m that close to. Everyone I know, I still feel a certain distance, a certain anxiety and awkwardness about whether they really want to be my friend, about how much is too much to ask of them or to expect from them. And the older I get, the more of my friends are married – they have someone else to go home to, someone else to spend so much time with, and so no one is looking to spend that kind of intensive friendship time with me.

I think I had friendships like that when I was younger – certainly when I was in Japan for the first time, I think there are friends who I could call up and arrange with to just hang out, to just go out all the time. Thank god none of us ever had to go to the hospital, but I think we would have gone with one another – being in a foreign country, and needing that kind of help and solidarity makes a big difference: sure, I’ll go with you, and we’ll figure things out together. Whether it’s the hospital, or getting a bank account, or getting a cellphone, we did it together, so we could be there for one another, help one another figure it out, etc.

Bob touching Charlotte’s foot while they lie in bed together. Image from IMDb.

To be honest, I’m not even sure what I think of the film anymore in the end. The fact that they kiss at the very end actually gives me problems, I think. Because if they didn’t, then it would mean that this was a film about how other kinds of relationships are possible. That when staying in a foreign city for only a few weeks, and even when committed to other people, you can still form friendships of a particular type, that’s exciting and fun and at the same time really close and deep and meaningful, even if only in that place, even if only for that time. I know plenty of friends who I’ve had an amazing time with traveling, and either not really kept in touch with at all otherwise, or just had a different friendship, a different experience with otherwise. And whether Bob and Charlotte ever see one another again after parting ways in Tokyo is left completely open; I could of course imagine it going either way, either that they never see one another again but they just have this one incredible experience in their memories, or that Bob whispers in her ear something like “hey, if you’re ever in town, let me know, and let’s hang out, let’s get together again.” Which, I guess we’re supposed to think they both live in LA, but that would work better if they didn’t, and then we could imagine that maybe X years down the road, or once every few years from then on, they get together and just hang out again. But that really only kind of works if they’re friends – the kiss at the end means they basically have to either break it off with their spouses and try to get together, or break it off with one another and either never see one another again or really try to set some kind of boundaries to force this romantic relationship to be only a friendship…. It complicates things terribly.

Bob catches up to Charlotte on his way to the airport, after saying goodbye at the hotel. Image from IMDb.

I don’t know. I really kind of hate that they put that in there at the end. And it makes me think of Kimi no na wa also – where it’s not spelled out explicitly, it’s not shown on screen explicitly, that they get together in the end romantically, and I wanted to imagine that they might just form a friendship, a special friendship, where they get together once every few weeks or months and share that special bond they don’t have with anyone else, those memories, those experiences, but why should it have to happen romantically? Why can’t they each end up with different people, and be happy for one another, and still be friends? There are most certainly women in my life who I would like to thing I have a special, close, friendship with, even though they’re married to other people. But, regardless, even when they were dating (or even married) to other people, we still had lunches and coffees and drinks and had what I thought was a special time, a special close friendship.

It’s funny, now that I know the city so well, and really live in it, a film like Lost in Translation comes across as covering so little of the city. Such a foreigner’s, visitor’s, superficial experience of the city. And, actually, unless I missed it, I’m not sure we even saw Takeshita-dori in the film at all. They spend most of their time in the hotel, and when they do go out they take taxis, and yes they go to some clubs, and even to some friends’ apartments, but for the most part they’re not really getting out into the city, not nearly as much as my friends and I did in that first 4-month study abroad experience, and most certainly not anything like what I’ve experienced since. … Of course, they’re only there for a week, in a hotel, so what are you supposed to expect? It’s much more like… where have I been recently? Like my time in Jakarta, is probably a very comparable case, where I don’t speak the language and I don’t even know what’s to see, where to go, even once I do get out and go into the city… And so I ended up spending most of my time at the conference hotel, and at the shopping mall, and otherwise just walking up and down one main street….

In a Crash Course: Film Criticism video, Michael Aranda references a film scholar/critic as interpreting the entire film as a critique of capitalism. Both main characters seem overwhelmed and alienated by the excess of the city. An interesting interpretation, and well-argued, with some good evidence: both spouses (the wife back home in the US with her constant talk of carpet squares and remodeling, and the photographer husband – along with Anna Faris’ character – in their eager pursuit of the racing, exciting, but ultimately empty world of celebrity and so forth) represent excess, and petty, empty, capitalistic desires. The process or experience of filming the Suntory whiskey ad (“For relaxing times, make it Suntory times“) feels empty, nonsensical, meaningless. And when Bob & Charlotte do go out into the city, it’s loud and flashy, cacophonous. Their own relationship emerges more in absence, and in quiet.

Okay, sure. A compelling, well-argued argument. But I just never got that. I watch this film, and through these two protagonists I see myself, desperate to engage with all that the city has to offer, wanting to get the most out of it and enjoy what everyone else seems to be enjoying, but never knowing how to get there. How to find the right bars, how to find the right people and places to create those experiences. And so, when Bob & Charlotte go out with friends and end up listening to great music – great music that Bob says he’ll try to find and buy, and which his wife just doesn’t get – or when they go out to karaoke, or when Charlotte goes out to temples & shrines in Kyoto, they do find things to engage in and engage with and enjoy. It’s sitting in the hotel that’s alienating – gazing out at a city they don’t know how to engage with.

Aranda’s second key point, taken from a different film scholar, has to do with the way Japan is used for comedy, and in stereotypical ways. Yes, for sure, there are elements that are very stereotypical. But I think it represents honestly and genuinely an American’s, or a Westerner’s, first experiences of Tokyo. This is what you’re going to see, this is what is going to stand out at you. This is what you’re going to expect to see, and then see, because those are the stereotypes. Okay, sure, the “massage artist”/escort who someone sent to Bob’s room, who asks him to “lip her stockings,” was totally unnecessary and meaningless, and perhaps one of the most cringe-worthy moments in the film. But this idea presented in this video of focusing on the quiet, deep, meaningful things like temples, shrines, and ikebana, and then showing how most Japanese (e.g. in the pachinko parlor, or the game arcade) seem to have forsaken or forgotten those things, as if the film is trying to tell us that the Japanese people are hypocrites about their own culture – I think that’s maybe reading too much into it. I watched this and I thought, simply, this is an accurate representation of Tokyo, and especially it’s an accurate representation of one’s first experiences. Tokyo has both. It contains multitudes, to use a cliché. That doesn’t mean that one thing is more vapid than another; I watch this, and I see Charlotte enjoying herself, being amused and entertained by seeing in person the lights and sounds of a Tokyo game arcade, as well as also enjoying and appreciating the quiet beauty of a temple or shrine. Bob and Charlotte go to karaoke. They walk (or take taxis) through the lights and sounds of Shibuya’s famous scramble crossing. They go out with friends and enjoy some classic Japanese rock. They’re enjoying and experiencing Tokyo. This is Tokyo. This is how it is. Some of it is playing into stereotypes; some of it is gratuitous. But most of it I think is just representing what many people’s first experience of Tokyo actually is like.

Read Full Post »

Moving to Tokyo

The Akamon (“red gate”) entrance to the University of Tokyo Hongô campus.

Well, talk about being way behind. It’s been more than two months, now, since I left Los Angeles, and more than one since I started my new job in Tokyo.

Things are going really well. I cannot say how truly I feel I lucked out with this position, how fortunate I am. Being back in Japan is exactly the place I needed to be to regain a sense of calm, happiness, and balance after everything that has happened in the last few months (years). 

As wonderful as it would have been to secure a proper tenure track position somewhere in the States, or a postdoc or whatever it may have been, and as happy as I could have been in any of those situations, I think that many of them would have involved “hitting the ground running,” the same levels of work and stress and endless busy-ness as in the final stages of the dissertation (if not more so, what with class prep and everything). For any potential employers reading this, yes, I do think I would have done well, and strived and worked diligently, and been happy and successful in meeting such challenges, and I certainly look forward to hopefully getting such a position in the future, getting to teach students and engage with them and all the rest. It would be such a privilege and a pleasure to have my own students, to teach courses, to see them excited, interested, inspired; to see them ask intriguing and insightful questions; to see them grow and learn and improve.

But for now, Tokyo is right where I need to be, to find my center and find myself again. 

A JR Sobu Line train passing by near Ichigaya Station.

I’m now a postdoctoral “Project Researcher” 特任研究員 at the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute 東京大学史料編纂所 working as part of a team on a project creating an international hub for the Ishin Shiryō 維新史料, a collection of some 30,000 documents pertaining to events of Japanese (“national” political) history c. 1840-1870. I am not sure when any of the products of this work will become available to the public, as we are only in extremely early stages right now, but we are working on a glossary of terms relevant to the collection, and English translations of short summaries of the key events of each document. Whenever it does go live, X years from now, you’ll be able to search in English (or romaji) and see at an easy glance what documents are relevant to your search terms.

And, you’ll be able to browse through a list of the key events of the Bakumatsu period (*key events centered on the shogunate, the imperial court, and certain categories of domestic and foreign affairs, that is) and just get a sense of how events unfolded, day by day, overlapping and interspersing with other contemporary matters. For me, this has been one of the most interesting parts – whether in a general survey History of Japan or History of East Asia course, or in more in-depth studies e.g. reading for a graduate field in Edo period foreign relations as I did, we get a certain sense of a certain narrative of the most key events as they developed. But such narratives of foreign ships arriving; figures like Abe Masahiro, Shimazu Nariakira, and Tokugawa Nariaki reacting in certain ways; the shogunate and the daimyô putting certain policies into place; and so forth, these narratives skip from month to month, or even year to year as they try to simplify and condense down the story to only the most “significant,” i.e. directly historically impactful, moments. But then you delve into a study like Mitani Hiroshi’s Escape from Impasse or Marco Tinello’s work, and you see just how complicated these events were, day by day, element by element. And you see it in the Ishin Shiryô Kôyô 維新史料綱要 I’m helping translate as well.

And I’m continuing to plug forward on my own research as well. I am profoundly thankful that working on my own research is also included in the position and is considered part of my job – I don’t need to be working on the Project all the time. So, I’ve already started making appointments with museums and archives to see more Ryukyu embassy procession scrolls, buying books, and scanning tons of articles and book chapters to read later.

Seen at an Okinawa soba place in Shibuya.

Ever since I finished the dissertation, it’s been such an incredible weight off my shoulders. There’s no longer a pressure to produce something complete and polished by a set date, and now I can just go back to gathering more and building up and building around my knowledge of the subject, seeing what develops, seeing what comes together. 

And doing so in a city I just love. As hectic as it is, and as crowded as the trains can be, I actually find Tokyo very relaxing, and exciting. It’s an escape from the stresses of life in the US, and a place where, yes, I’m working diligently for more or less 40+ hours a week, but in between I’m also exploring new cafes and sandwich shops, meeting up with new and old friends, going to film festivals and theatre productions, visiting historical sites, attending symposia and workshops, visiting museums and archives, meeting new people and building my professional network, and so on and so forth. Both for informing my research directly, and for more broadly inspiring and informing me, deepening my connections and experience in Japanese culture/society, strengthening my connections in meeting and knowing people, and so forth, I am just so grateful for this opportunity, and will keep doing my best to make the most of it.

Read Full Post »

Eisa performance at Ryûdai Campus Festival (daigakusai).

I’ve been in Tokyo for just over two months now, and I’ve suddenly this week found myself thinking about my life in Okinawa. While I was there, it felt (of course) so totally immediate and real, but now that I’m gone, only two months later, and even after being there for nearly a full six months, the whole thing feels like a dream, or like another life. This happens every time I go from one place to another, so I should be used to it by now, but I’m still not. Who am I? Am I the person I was in Okinawa? Am I the person I am now, here in Tokyo? I *love* my life here in Tokyo, though I sort of dreaded it and knew that in a lot of ways I didn’t want to let go of my life in Okinawa. And I look forward eagerly to spending time in Okinawa again, sometime, but still it feels like a dream, like another life. Getting the Prefectural Museum newsletter in the mail made it feel more real, and also more distant, at the same time. Every new exhibit, every new event, in Okinawa, that I wish I were there on-island for…

Tôdai’s famous Yasuda Auditorium.

I dunno. It’s weird. As I’m writing this, more and more comes back to my memory, and in a certain way it feels real again, in a very normal sort of way – not necessarily like an adventure, an incredible experience of some other world, but like, yes, a place that I lived. The café, the university library, the dorm room. Real and yet unreal. I dunno.

At the Okinawa Prefectural Art Museum.

Part of me feels like I should be able to just hop on a bus and go there again, to the bookstore, to the museum, to Kokusai-dôri, just like I did for months. But then I have to remind myself that not only is that a whole plane flight away, but that I most likely will not be going back at all for at least a year, maybe two or three.

And now my life here in Tokyo feels so real. And I don’t want it to end. I’ve been so fortunate in my life to come here so many times, and also to stay here for so long this time. And I know I’ll be back, and it’ll be wonderful all over again. But it’ll never be the same as it was this time. And that’s an odd feeling, too, because what do I really have here in Tokyo, other than the general greatness of this city (which I’ll have the next time and the next time)? I have affiliation with the Shiryôhensanjo, which is fucking amazing – getting to take out books from about half the places on Tôdai campus, and getting to walk the stacks at the Hensanjo and take books out and bring them back to my office where I can scan them or whatever rather than having to pay for expensive copies. And I have this really nice apartment. I mean, it’s not the most lavish amazing wonderful place ever, and I feel weird actually to like any apartment so much (plus, I learned that it’s actually not all that inexpensive for the area) – but, really, it’s just such a nice place. Everything is basically brand new (or at least extremely well-maintained), from the hardwood floors to the totally not moldy or creepy at all shower/toilet room, to the desk and the A/C-slash-heater. It’s not a super big place, but it’s more than big enough for my needs, and close enough to campus, and all of those good things… and I’m going to be sad to have to say goodbye to it. And, since it’s a visiting researcher dorm, I don’t know whether to say that makes it easier, or harder, to think about getting to live here again, in the future… What do I really have that makes this time so special, so desirable to hold onto, to continue or to repeat? The Hensanjo, and the apartment, yes, but the city will be here next time, too, and whichever neighborhood I end up living in, will be a new and pleasant experience in its own way.

I wrote up all of the above in the spur of the moment, as I was thinking about it, and left it kind of incomplete. Coming back to it now to add links and pictures and just a little bit of editing, I find I’m really not sure what more to say, or how to conclude. But, I guess it’s just something that’s going to continue to be on my mind, in different variations, as I continue my time here in Tokyo, and after it comes to an end in August. It’s such a privilege and such a pleasure to get to spend so much time in these two cities. Like everywhere I’ve been, I know that each different stay has a very different feel, a different energy to it. It’ll never be the same again, and there’s something very sad about that. And, as I said at the beginning of this post, no matter how real, firm, and concrete, life in Okinawa (or Tokyo or Hawaiʻi or anywhere) might feel at the time, it always inevitably turns to a mirage, a dream, a vague memory. Photos are great, and I’ll keep taking far more of them than I know what to do with; but looking at photos will never be the same as actually being there. I look at photos, and often I remember what else I did that day, or what brought me there, or other associated/affiliated thoughts, but rarely do I remember how I felt that day, or what it really felt like to be there in that place. But, what are you going to do? Shôgannai, as they say in Japanese. We have to just enjoy ourselves while we can, and keep moving forward, and just make peace with the fact that life goes on. It’ll never be everything you might dream it will be, and it’ll never be the same as it was before, but it’ll be good, in whatever new and different ways it will be. Just have to take it as it comes.

Another beautiful, sunny day in Naha, looking out over the city from the monorail station.

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

Prior to flying to Okinawa to begin my research year in earnest, I had a few days in Tokyo, mainly organized around the need to go in to Japan Foundation headquarters in Yotsuya for a one-hour orientation meeting, to get situated with paperwork and so forth. But these few days were also a good opportunity to see the city a little bit, catch up with some friends, meet (however briefly) a whole bunch of other grad students currently doing their research years as well – many of whom are staying in Tokyo, but many others of whom, like myself, left within the next day or two for Okinawa, Fukuoka, or Sendai.

And, while in Tokyo, of course I squeezed in a bit of history wandering. I don’t know how the blog posts will go from here for the remainder of this year. I would really love to keep up with writing about every place I visit, every thing I do, to engage with these things not only in the moment but also by writing about them afterward, and thus thinking about them a bit more, and also feeling I’ve produced something that I’ve shared – feeling that I’m contributing in some small way to informing or entertaining others, the Internet; that I’m doing public history, maybe, in some small and amateurish way, if that’s not too grandiose a thing to say about my ramblings on this little blog. But, then, of course, on the other side, as much as I would like to do that, blogging is time-consuming, and I just don’t know if I’ll be able to keep it up, while also devoting appropriate levels of attention to my research, which is what I’m really here for, and what I’m getting paid to focus on. So, we’ll see. In the meantime, though…

The entrance to the PARCO Museum, done up for its first ever exhibit, “STRIP!”

I arrived in Tokyo on Monday night, Sept 12. On Tuesday, I skimmed briefly through the first ever exhibit of the newly opened PARCO Museum, an art space located on the 7th floor of the PARCO department store in Ikebukuro. Their opening exhibit is of drawings by mangaka Anno Moyoco, who I know best from her Yoshiwara-themed series Sakuran, which was turned into a live-action movie in 2006, starring Tsuchiya Anna and with rocking music by Shiina Ringo. There is so much going on in Tokyo at any given time – it’s awfully tempting to immerse myself in that art world, to become (again) someone well familiar with the latest goings-on, who has been to the latest exhibits, and who has real thoughts on exhibit design, aesthetics and artistic choices of the artists themselves, and so on and so forth. But, boy, that is a whole other ‘me’ yet; I would need three of me, three clones, just to be all the different people I want to be – the Historian / grad student / researcher; the art historian, museumgoer, art world member; the history nerd visiting and blogging about obscure historical sites; the culture nerd attending and blogging about and getting involved in festivals and performances… Still, I’m excited to return to Tokyo in a few months and get involved in all that again.

I’m not sure I have too much to say about the Anno Moyoco exhibit. I’ve grown so detached and distant from the worlds of anime, manga, and pop culture otherwise in recent years… The exhibit design was pretty cool, with walls and curtains and other elements evocative of the worlds or aesthetics of each of Anno’s different manga. While I understand the arguments for letting art speak for itself, I think that immersive exhibits are a worthwhile, impactful, experience unto themselves, and artworks in their own rights. And this one did a great job of that.

Screw Hattori Hanzô. Who cares? Totally over-hyped weeaboo bait. This here is a memorial monument (kuyôtô) for Tokugawa Nobuyasu, son of the great Tokugawa Ieyasu; poor Nobuyasu gets no attention, no recognition at all, and why? Just because he died decades before he might have ever gotten the chance to succeed his father as shogun? Feh.

Poking around Yotsuya prior to my meeting at Japan Foundation, I found my way to the small local temple of Sainen-ji 西念寺, where I grabbed some photos of the grave of Hattori Hanzô (“ninja” retainer to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who is probably a pretty cool figure, but who has been blown far out of all proportion by sammyrai geeks), and of a memorial stone (kuyôtô) for Tokugawa Nobuyasu, a son of Ieyasu’s who gets majorly short shrift and is treated as merely a footnote – if that – in the vast majority of scholarship on Tokugawa Ieyasu or the shogunate. Granted, he died some twenty years before the founding of the shogunate, but, still, he’s still a person, a figure, who had at least some significance. Doesn’t really deserve to be relegated to the dustbin of history just because he didn’t survive to be more explicitly influential.

For anyone looking to visit these sites yourself, Hattori’s grave and Nobuyasu’s memorial stone are just around to the side of the main hall. As you enter the temple’s main plaza, just walk straight and a bit to the left. I was wandering around in the cemetery itself, trying to look around for them, and got chastised. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last – I do my utmost, of course, to be as respectful as possible towards the fact that it’s an actual cemetery, and I hope that people (Japanese mourners, temple staff) see that; the vast majority of the time, in my experience, people associated with the temple understand and appreciate that people like myself are interested in these historical spots, and they are almost always plenty willing to guide you to the right place. But, yeah, it’s a balancing act. Some temples have signs pointing you in the right direction; some don’t, and so you just try to be as respectful as possible while trying to find what it is you came there for.

I then took a very brief run through the Fire Department Museum, a surprisingly large (seven floors of exhibits?) museum, with free admission, that stands adjacent to the Yotsuya Fire Department. Didn’t really have time to engage properly, but just ran through taking photos of the displays on Edo period firefighting; I’ll come back to these at some point in the future and read the labels I photographed, and learn a tiny bit more about how Edo (Tokyo) functioned at that time. I really love museums like this, because they just have so much stuff, and they just put it all out so nonchalantly. Can you imagine ever seeing more than one or two or three Edo period firefighting-related objects on display at the same time at the Metropolitan Museum, or LACMA? Can you imagine actually learning anything of real volume, real extent and consequence, about early modern Japanese firefighting, at the Freer-Sackler or the Museum of Fine Arts? I know that for the average general American museumgoer this is all terribly obscure. But it’s not so exceptionally obscure, is it, really? You don’t have to be a super crazy deep “history of firefighting” nerd to be interested in this stuff – all you have to be is someone who’s heard of it and wants to learn more; someone with an interest in Japan, or in premodern societies more generally, curious about how fires were fought – for example – prior to the advent of modern techniques and technologies. All you need is to take it that one next step – from having ukiyo-e woodblock prints of firefighters because that’s “art”, and perhaps a fireman’s robe, because that’s “textile art,” and taking the next step to include a historical fire-fighting tool – even just one – so that museumgoers can learn something not just about the art and the artist and the aesthetics, but also about the subject matter itself. What was life like in Edo? How did the city work?

Following my Japan Foundation orientation, around 4pm, I then met up with some friends for happy hour (and what for me was a very late lunch, which is actually about the time I normally eat lunch) in Harajuku, followed by some brief clothes shopping adventures. I don’t know if I was just tired, or because I’ve just finished packing up my entire life back in California and thus am particularly keenly aware of how much shit I already own, or because for a change I know I’ll actually be back here for a many-months-long stay and so there’s no need to go crazy right now today, but somehow the whole Harajuku thing just wasn’t grabbing me that night. In a few months, after I’ve gotten a better sense of what clothes I do and don’t have, what styles I’m yearning for, and so forth, I’ll come back and I’ll buy all the things.

Wednesday saw more general random history wandering. I was meeting up with a friend in the Akasaka/Nagatachô neighborhood, so while I waited to get together with her, I found my way to the ruins of the Akasaka-mitsuke, the approach to the Akasaka Gate of Edo castle. Marky Star has a wonderfully thorough explanation about mitsuke and so forth here, so I won’t bother to rehash that. Still, it was neat to see some stonework surrounding a small former section of the castle moat, along with its associated bridge (Benkei-bashi) – to get some sense of what had once been there, much more so than if it were just a few stones and a marker saying “you can’t see anything at all, but just imagine…”

Adjacent to this is a massive, shiny, very new-looking residential+shopping complex, which we are told stands on the former grounds of the Kishû Tokugawa Kojimachi mansion. Here too, while there is less explicitly to be seen of anything surviving from that time (such as a gatehouse, for example), I was happy to see as many plaques and markers as I did, explaining even just a little bit the history of what once stood there. For a moment, I got mixed up and thought this was maybe the Kishû Tokugawa Akasaka mansion which in the Meiji period became the temporary imperial palace for a time, but later in the day we visited the far more famous Akasaka Palace, and I was reminded that that was built atop the former site of the Akasaka mansion I was thinking of – and so the one more immediately adjacent to Akasaka-mitsuke was a separate mansion.

Incidentally, directly across the street from the Akasaka-mitsuke ruins I could see (across the street, in the distance, behind serious gates) the official residences of the heads of the two Houses of the Japanese Diet (i.e. the two houses of parliament). Had I taken the time, I could have easily sought out the Diet Building, the Prime Minister’s residence, the headquarters of the Liberal Democratic Party, and so forth, all of which are clustered right around that neighborhood.

Instead, I poked around in a slightly different direction, walking left instead of right, or something to that effect, and happened upon a building associated with the Korean royal family, who in Japan’s Imperial period were incorporated into the Japanese European-style peerage/aristocracy, or kazoku. Not something I think the Japanese government or whoever are necessarily trying to hide, per se – that the last members of the Korean royal family were present and resident in Tokyo in the 1900s to 1940s – but just a corner of the international history that just doesn’t pop up so much on the Japan side (of course, this is quite prominent in Korean history); empire is one thing, but what happened to the royal family, as individuals, where they lived in Tokyo, and so forth, gets brushed aside in the face of the much more boldly and starkly obvious issues of Empire and imperialism and colonialism – political history and all of that. Still, I think it fascinating, the place of Koreans, Ryukyuans, Chinese, within Japanese culture and history.

What’s today known as the Classic House at Akasaka Prince, standing on one portion of the former site of that Kishû Tokugawa Kojimachi mansion, seems to be the restoration of a residence constructed in 1930 for the last Crown Prince of the Korean Kingdom; this 1930 building seems to have replaced one built in 1884 for Prince Kitashirakawa by Josiah Conder – arguably the most significant architect of the Meiji period, or at least the most widely featured in introductory Japanese Art History survey textbooks.

So, that was pretty cool. Meeting up with my friend, we then poked around Hie Shrine for just a bit – they were having a gagaku concert and some kind of festival procession the next day in conjunction with Mid-Autumn Festival and also the 300th anniversary of the accession of Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, all of which sounds quite exciting but I won’t be able to attend.

We then made our way to the Akasaka Palace – the more famous one, built in 1909 on the former grounds of the Kishû Tokugawa mansion which had been appropriated and modified to serve as a temporary imperial palace from 1873 to 1889. Whereas I imagine the 1870s-90s palace to have been largely unchanged from its architectural style, layout, construction, character as an Edo period daimyô residence – wooden construction, tatami mat flooring, shôji and fusuma screens for walls, ceramic tile roofing, and all the rest – the Akasaka Palace built in 1909, the one we know today, is a glory of Meiji architecture, in a Neo-Baroque style inspired by palaces of Germany, Austria, and France. Originally constructed as a residence for the Crown Prince, it has since the 1960s (if not much earlier? I’m not sure) been used to provide lodgings for top-level visiting foreign dignitaries, such as heads of state. Sadly, we failed to consult any public opening schedule or public tours application process ahead of time, and so were only able to see the palace from a distance, from outside the impressive gates. Kind of like visiting the White House. But that’s fine.

So, that’s it for Tokyo for now. Just a few scattered adventures, and now, off to Okinawa. I expect I’ll be doing a lot of exploring and adventuring in Okinawa – historical sites, traditional arts performances, museum exhibits – so, watch this space. Then, in the spring, I’ll be back in Tokyo, and the more mainstream Japanese adventures will continue.

Read Full Post »

PhD Comics, 10/3/2003, (c) Jorge Cham.

Whenever I’ve heard (or read) people say things like “the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know,” I always used to think it referred to a breadth and depth of detailed knowledge. The more you learn about Japan, the more you realize how little you know about England, the Netherlands, or Korea (not to mention Botswana or Guyana); at the same time, the more you learn about any given aspect of Japanese culture or history (for example), the more you realize just how many other castles, samurai lords, artists, events & incidents, works of literature, or whatever it may be, that you still don’t know about. Plus, even within any given topic, the more you know about Hokusai or Danjûrô or Saga Castle, for example, the more you realize just how much more about that same topic you still don’t know. That’s all certainly true.

But, I’ve come to realize there is a whole other dimension to this phenomenon, too. Specifically, as I’ve spent more time in academia, as I’ve learned more and more, and come to appreciate the diversity and complexity inherent in any and every topic, I’ve discovered an inability to speak confidently on almost any subject, or indeed to even think confidently that I properly or sufficiently understand any given topic.

From the “Sumidagawa Digital Picture Scroll” on display at Tokyo Sky Tree. Artist unknown.

When I came to Japan for the first time ten years ago, I had all kinds of ideas and impressions about what Japan, or Tokyo, was like, and what Japanese culture or attitudes were like, and I didn’t hesitate to share these in blogs, and in talking to friends and family. At that time, thinking my undergraduate courses & reading made me actually something of an expert, combined with my experience as a study abroad student in Tokyo, which I thought a rather rare and special experience, I saw myself as truly having some kind of expertise, and some ability to speak on a wide variety of subjects pertinent to Japanese culture or history. Of course, the fact that so many of my family and friends asked questions and seemed to think me something of an expert only encouraged this. What do Japanese think about the war? Why did they do it at the time? What do they think about the Emperor? What do they think about Hiroshima? about Pearl Harbor? about Christianity? about Judaism? about the US? Asked these questions, based on my experiences, books, professors’ lectures, and my own personal ideas or impressions which I mistook for possessing some authority, I commented with a considerable degree of confidence on everything from life in Tokyo, contemporary pop culture, and contemporary political attitudes, to attitudes during the war, to aspects of traditional culture or samurai history.

A view of the “real” Tokyo, from that same Tokyo Sky Tree.

Yet, today, if you asked me about half these topics, I’d almost definitely say I have no idea. Whether this is simply a function of getting older, or a function of the amount of “knowledge” and experience I’ve accumulated over my many years in graduate school, or whether it has to do with post-modern theory that’s been imposed upon me, I don’t know, but, I have absolutely come to feel a dramatic lack of confidence in my ability to “know” or say anything definitive about almost anything.

I used to think my professors and my history books provided definitive answers, and that based on these, and whatever else I’d been exposed to, that I “understood” or “knew,” and could reiterate (or regurgiatate, as if on an exam) a relatively definitive answer. I used to believe that books and professors were perfectly reliable, believable, sources of “facts” which, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or bricks in a building, could be collected, arranged, assembled, to form an increasingly detailed – if never complete – knowledge of a given subject.

But today, I’d say that the issue, whatever issue it may be, from military bases in Okinawa to the current economic situation, is far too complex, and that I haven’t done the proper research. I haven’t interviewed or surveyed hundreds of people, and I haven’t scoured through hundreds of texts (or other evidence/sources), so, I don’t know. I can tell you what I think about the issue myself, and I can tell you what a few things I’ve read or heard say about it, but, I have no idea what most people think, or what they really think, or the precise reasoning or thought process behind why they think that… and so, in contrast to when I was younger, recognizing or acknowledging the limitations of my knowledge, I generally would hesitate to say anything much at all on the subject.

Leaving Yokohama/Tokyo a few days ago, coming out to Chiba, and seeing so much open space, fields, mountains, open up before me, I couldn’t help but have certain ideas, impressions, thoughts, about “this” Japan and “that” Japan, about what each one is like, and about which one I prefer, or which one better matches my expectations or desires. But, while there was certainly a time when I would have written down all these thoughts, and shared them on a blog, now, there was a voice in my head saying, “whatever you think, it’s too generalizing, it’s too conflating. Anything and everything is too complex, too diverse, to be grasped. Nothing you can say will be accurate or appropriate.”

A Hikari Shinkansen locomotive, at Hiroshima Station. Taken in August 2003.

Just because I’ve grown used to something, just because the novelty has worn off, does that mean I’m now seeing it more truthfully? Does that mean I’ve “realized” the “truth” about it? Does it make my new experiences any more genuine than my old ones? My first time in Japan, I was amazed by the Suica card system, by the Shinkansen (so fast, so clean, such a smooth ride, and so convenient, if a bit expensive), by how clean and completely non-sketchy the convenience stores were, by how perfectly on-time the trains were and how organized and polite most people were in most situations. I had a cellphone for the first time, and, of course I was amazed too by the technological capabilities of the toilet seats. Japan seemed at that time so sparkly shiny wonderful, so futuristic, and so wonderfully civilized. More so than [my experiences of] the US, in so many ways.

But, now that I’m used to these things, and they’ve lost their novelty, now that I see supercrowded trains not as a sign of how vibrant and active and urban Tokyo is, but instead as an obnoxious product of overcrowding and of the negative sides of urbanization – now that I see a train ride in Tokyo as an ordeal rather than an adventure – does that mean my new view is any more correct? Or that Tokyo or Japan has in any way genuinely declined, stagnated, or gotten further twisted up in inefficient and stupid bureaucracy in the intervening ten years? I don’t know.

Nishi-Nippori Station, in northeastern central Tokyo. Is this the “real” Tokyo, and the flashiness of Shibuya merely a front? Or is Shibuya the “real” Japan, and this a sort of left-over from an earlier decade, that simply hasn’t quite caught up yet to the “real” Japan of today?

If I’ve seen more delayed trains in the last two days than ever before in my quite limited experience in Japan, if I’ve seen more train stations served by far too few trains (coming far too infrequently) and surrounded not by an exciting, intriguing, or “quaint” or attractive town, but instead by nothing but asphalt, concrete, pachinko parlors and rundown hotels, is that an indication of the “real” Japan? Or of a decline? Or is it just an accident of where I’ve been, and when I’ve been there? Which is the exception, and which is the normal?

It is in these ways, and for these reasons, that I increasingly feel totally incapable of saying anything with any kind of authority about Japan, whether it’s a scholarly comment or even just something to write down in my journal. While I certainly understand why making such gross generalizations would be inappropriate – I’ve read and talked about Edward Said’s Orientalism more than enough – at the same time, it’s kind of sad, and leaves me feeling kind of empty. Looking out over the landscape, or reflecting upon my experience, I want to be able to think something about it; I want to be able to consider it and analyze it and feel I’ve come away having learned something or gained something or realized something. But, instead, I just stare blankly, unable to think anything at all without simultaneously thinking that that thought is too generalizing, too biased, too based on insufficient information or insufficient consideration. What is the purpose, after all, of reflecting upon my experiences or impressions, when these are so completely subjective, results not only of my individual personality and perspective, but also of my mood that day, and of all kinds of accidental factors, e.g. that I went to this shop rather than that shop, or this town rather than that town, or that I got there an hour earlier or an hour later, or a day earlier or a day later?

For certain types of things, I still believe in the value of “facts,” of building up one’s knowledge of what’s already “known” (or, rather, what’s already said) about a given subject, and of adding to that collective “knowledge” through one’s own investigations (research, e.g. reading texts). But for other things, it’s sometimes very much a feeling that we don’t know, we can’t know, we cannot, will not, every know. Which leads to the next question: if none of us can truly call ourselves experts, if none of us can ever truly obtain anything approaching or resembling expert knowledge, if “knowing” X or Y is impossible, then, as scholars, what the hell are we doing?

I kind of hate that I think this way now, but I’m not sure there’s any going back…

Read Full Post »

I’m staying with friends in Tokyo for a few weeks – it’s amazing to be back in Japan, and I’ve certainly gone through numerous emotions and trains of thought about being here again, but rather than ramble through all of that, I’ll try to put that aside and talk about just one or two things, for the moment. My friends live in a pretty quiet, out of the way neighborhood, so even though I’ve been here a few days already, today was my first real trip into the city, in a sense. I was thinking of checking out Shimokita or Jiyûgaoka or something, and maybe another day soon I will. But today, I’m glad I decided to go to Harajuku and Shibuya – in a sense, it really doesn’t feel like you’re in Tokyo, or like you’ve come to Tokyo, done Tokyo, had the Tokyo experience, until you’ve gone to one of these major areas (e.g. Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Akihabara) and felt the energy.

Harajuku certainly doesn’t feel the subculture hotspot it once was, and I don’t think that’s an accident of the time or day that I went, or the weather. Compared to ten years ago (when I first came to Japan as a study abroad student), there are markedly fewer people in goth-loli, punk, or other fashions that stand out dramatically, and fewer shops specializing in such things. And that’s certainly unfortunate in various ways. But, on the plus side, the area is still very vibrant, very active, and which one short strip along Meiji-dôri is now dominated by utterly mainstream Western chains such as GAP, Forever 21, and H&M, the smaller, Japanese, shops along Takeshita-dôri and in the adjoining backstreets are still selling Japanese street fashion sort of things – meaning, the sorts of things that the average hip, stylish, young Japanese guy or girl would wear; not ordinary blah t-shirts and jeans, but something with style. And, while we’ve certainly lost (or are losing) something in terms of the spectacle and the experience of Harajuku in that sense of the decline of the area as a punk/goth-loli hotspot (I wonder where they’ve all gone), it’s actually become an excellent spot for me to do clothes shopping, as much of what’s on sale is now a lot tamer, more wearable (for me, in that sense of it not being so out there, so boldly punk or goth or whatever), and more affordable, while still being distinctly fashionable – these are things that not only fit me well and look good on me (I hope), but which I can feel special about owning and wearing, that when people back home ask, and even if they don’t, I’ll know that I bought them in Tokyo, and that I am in whatever little way connected to the Tokyo fashion scene, or whatever. Plus, things just fit me better here; the average target customer is shorter/smaller, and the style is slimmer.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I was glad that I decided to go to Harajuku & Shibuya today, because you can really feel the energy of the city. Not just that it’s busy, or crowded, but there’s a cultural energy, a feeling of the experience of this place, this very central, happening, place, a place you’ve heard of or thought of or imagined, and now you’re experiencing it – and, a place that is very much a center of activity, of the latest trends, of events, etc. Tokyo is one of the largest, busiest, most happening cities in the world. It’s a city of neon lights, crazy crowds, fashion, art, electronics, incredible design, excellent food… and especially in contrast to the experience of other parts of Japan, it’s in places like Harajuku and Shibuya, moreso than in a quiet, out of the way residential neighborhood, that one really feels that.

Today, in the course of just one day, I saw the grave of a famous major Japanese historical figure, visited several Shinto shrines and one Buddhist temple, poked around a whole bunch of Japanese fashion stores, enjoyed a genuine authentic Harajuku crepe (with matcha ice cream. yum.), discovered an entire two-story store devoted just to Evangelion goods (and I’m assuming this is here for just a limited time, making the experience of the shop itself, as well as all the goods, though I didn’t buy any, an even more special experience), saw a couple of young guys playing music outside Shibuya Station, heard/saw a couple of giant soundtrucks pass by advertising the Les Mis movie and blasting “Do You Hear the People Sing?“, heard and saw a political soundtruck, with candidates shaking hands and shouting slogans, rode the Yamanote, and poked around the giant Tsutaya at Shibuya Crossing, getting a brief glimpse at what music & movies are cutting-edge new and popular in Japan.

Yappari, it doesn’t feel like Tokyo, it doesn’t feel that one has truly returned, until one goes to these big-name, vibrant, active, and, yes, obnoxiously crowded, areas. But, therein lies the energy, the beat of the city, that I have missed so.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »