Click Pic for Tokyo Gallery
When I first came to Tokyo in 2011 to visit my then girlfriend I wasn’t too impressed with the city. I was shocked how utterly replaceable people were. Everyone was wearing dark suits, white shirts and the same shoes in probably the same size. All were literally collapsing on the trains after another life draining day at work.
As if it was yesterday I remember when my former girlfriend and I sat in some cafe on the 5th floor in some building and we were overlooking some train station and everyone looked exactly, exactly the same. Including the crushed body language. Pick a random guy, replace him with someone else and you couldn’t tell the difference. All moving in the same robot like, malfunctioned fashion. Really, barely functioning, while somehow trying to get home from work. Whoever thought Germans were robots has never been to Tokyo. Germans are bendy Yoga Guru masters in comparison, full of life, joy and equilibrium. That was in 2011.
When I came back in 2012, same picture.
In 2017 I’m still not in love with Tokyo at all. While I truly enjoy parts of the city, the incredible friendliness of the people, the bold architecture and of course the food, in general I find it a rather depressing place to be, mainly for its street life that is lacking anything that would resemble life.
If my former colleagues in the video games industry were dead, they would now be spinning in their graves. Japan and Tokyo in particular has a cult like status in the industry and quite rightly so. Some former colleagues of mine even started to learn Japanese and have become quite advanced and they are to be admired for this. But I believe most see the city through the games industry lens, a rather narrow view.
Sure, a visit to Akihabara, the sacred ground for Japan’s famous “otaku”, anime and video game fan culture is a must, with its freaked out Square Enix coffee shop, games, games, games, crazy sex toys, retro Nintendo bags, purses, shirts and shoes that depict all kinds of manga/anime and video game cult characters. Tokyo is great if you evaluate the city from this perspective but if we are honest, the big innovations and break-throughs lie mainly in the past and there is little new things that would feed the reputation.
Akihabara is just one area, one layer in a multi-layered city and a country that has its roots to this day in a stiff hierarchical structure that often seems so at odds with the 21st century.
Street life without Life
Walking through the streets of Tokyo, no matter if crowded or deserted, the feedback you get from your surroundings is very much the same everywhere you go: Silence.
People speak in hushed voices if they speak at all. Eva and I were so surprised when we strolled through Ginza. We didn’t know that so many people could be so quiet on a sunny afternoon. There is hardly laughter, joy or any other form of human emotion around. Everyone sticks to themselves and avoids creating any kind of fuss. Showing emotions in public is not something the Japanese have invented until Sake is served. Then they loosen up a little bit. But one thing is for sure: those bottled up emotions will come out one way or the other and with regards to my Japanese ex-girlfriend, those emotions came out as soon as the bedroom door was shut.
But being invisible in public has become an art perfected by most.
Often it seems it is a race, a competition of who can have the least personality.
Even the cars seem to just sneak along in utter silence.
Tokyo is THE Mecca for introverts for sure.
When I compared Taichung in Taiwan to a debut album full of creative craziness, experimental orgasms that might hit or miss their targets, but overall being a city not afraid of making mistakes and I compared Taipei to a Best of album of some seasoned band that is nevertheless pumping out good tunes, I meant it and thought it was a rather accurate comparison. Tokyo in the same vein feels like a record you find in the vintage section of a record store. Bit dusty, some scratches, evoking mixed feelings of curiosity and pride with whoever finds it.
Oh, look honey what I’ve found in the Vintage section of the record shop today! You will never ever guess. It’s this old “Tokyo” record. And before you say anything, it was a bargain and includes the hit single “Innovation is a thing of the past”. Now isn’t that crazy?
Old, Older, Tokyo
Compared to Taipei or Taichung Tokyo indeed feels old. Really old. Because apart from a vivid street life, one thing that is totally missing – unless you happen to be in Shibuya – is the Japanese youth.
Tokyo, where are your screaming babies? Your youngsters? Your young adults? Where are the young couples beaming from first love joy? Where is the youth’s voice? The graffiti, the self-expression through ripped up clothes? Where are the punks, the piercings, the uprising and revolt that makes teenagers teenagers and not just open buckets to be easily filled with wisdom and then told to move along?
Missing. That’s what they are.
That Japan has a shrinking population isn’t exactly news. Not enough babies are produced for years now. In 2016, for the first time since governments records began there were fewer than one million births and the overall population fell by 300.000. In this excellent Atlantic article “The mystery of why Japanese people having so few babies”, Alana Semules argues that the main reason is not so much young people who have long been accused of not having enough sex, nor is it women who prioritise a career over family, but less economic opportunities especially for men might be a more applicable reason. Other factors apply. Do read the article, it’s great.
The Independent in its usual alarming fashion even sees a “demographic time bomb”. But it’s true, if nappies for the elderly outsell nappies for babies every single year since 2011, then something doesn’t seem quite right.
A recent survey of Japanese people aged 18 to 34 found that nearly 50 percent are virgins and nearly a third of 30-year olds never had sex.
The survey doesn’t include same sex couples. But that’s another thing. Once the gay people in Japan have found their voices, which they will eventually, and push for full equal rights, it will be another dent in the birth rate figures.
Having said this and as a side note, Japan is already quite progressive for Asian standards when it comes to LGBT rights.
But in the wake of declining birth rate figures, a shrinking workforce and soaring pension demand threatens the Japanese economy.
I found it crazy how these numbers translate when you walk through the streets of Tokyo. These statistics suddenly become real if you walk around with open eyes.
Refugees? Foreigners? WTF are you talking about?
In general, the Japanese often don’t make it easy for themselves. The low birth rate could be alleviated by accepting more foreigners but the Japanese are very reluctant to do so. Actually, they don’t want that. This is true for foreigners as well as refugees. The total number of refugees accepted by Japan in the first half of 2017 was 3. Yes, Three. And not because only three people applied. The number of refugee applications was indeed 8561.
The numbers didn’t look any different in 2016, nor the years before that.
“Human Rights Watch” in January described Japan’s record on asylum seekers as “abysmal”. Reading this makes Brexit sound like an open border policy, a pipe dream envisioned by the extreme left.
The flip side
But Japan and Tokyo in particular is not all bad news. There are a million small things that I utterly enjoy or that I have experienced that still makes me giggle. It’s mainly things I find totally cute about the Japanese culture and people’s behavior that makes me want to hug them non-stop and just wish them all the luck in the world.
In my first week I went into a supermarket and this elderly employee bowed at least 20 times from the moment I entered until I left. He bowed, then I bowed, then he bowed, then I bowed, then he bowed, then I noticed, if I don’t stop bowing, we will be forever trapped in a never ending bow cycle until we drop. This man was incredibly cute and I took Eva next day to witness the bow ceremony.
If you don’t know the way, people sometimes ask if they can help and not only point you in the direction you need to go, but they will sometimes stop whatever they are doing, or wherever they are going and will take you, until they made sure that you will find your way.
Safety for its people seems also a major concern for the government. Lot’s of retired people in safety vests and light sticks are dispatched to places where most of the time nothing is ever happening and where no danger to the public is even perceived. And yet they guide you and make sure you are fine with a bow of course and they are the cutest people around.
What I also enjoyed was a special exhibition in Tokyo’s National Museum that just blew me away. The works of Unkei [1150 – 1223], the most famous sculptor of Buddhist statues in all of Japan, was on show, with his Buddhist statues collected from the country’s museums and shipped to and presented in Tokyo.
I spent 4hrs in there, rented a little audio guide and WOW that was one good exhibition. The only other exhibition that came anywhere near this one was about the 2nd World War in the Imperial War Museum in London many years ago.
Finally one day I punched “Cinema” into my Google Maps and got this kind of independent looking cinema as a suggestion, so I went.
Once I arrived it turned out to be a porn or “adult” cinema. I hesitated but since I came all this way and Eva was nowhere to be seen, I decided to go and check it out.
The first thing I noticed apart from the shitty movie on display, that literally contained a one minute soft sex scene every 20 minutes were the 4 prostitutes that roamed around freely in that cinema, making contact with the customers by sitting next to them and silently whispering stuff into their ears.
Before you get too excited, the prostitutes were all way over 50 years old but still substantially younger than the customers. The youngest customer must have been 60 and the oldest, well I’m not sure he was still around the next day.
I usually don’t go to porn cinemas. The last time I went was the day after I turned 18. It was a cinema that used to be located within the central station in Munich. A cinema that has long ceased to exist and I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember that there weren’t any 50 something year old prostitutes that you are free to touch for some cash.
No significant action was happening in this Tokyo cinema just touching as far as I could see and once a prostitute sat next to a customer, other retirees got up from their seats and slowly, creepily came over to look what was happening. Just standing there, looking. It was bizarre.
You would think that when surrounded by 60 and 70 year old men, me, a relatively young Stallion in comparison would stick out like a sore thumb and the prostitutes would come over, would bless the day and would offer me a free ride. Not that I would have been interested, just hypothetically speaking of course. Well, in my dreams maybe.. In Bavaria we would say “Die ham mich net mal mim Arsch angeschaut”. (Google it).
Nevertheless the cinema was an awesome experience. Utterly bizarre and I was glad I went.
But despite all this, the vibe I picked up in Tokyo was rather dark. Underneath the shiny architecture and fun, fun nerd area, the stylish shops in Shibuya and the super nice Sake bars is something darker, something unhealthy maybe.
An unhealthy core or root that so far has not been eradicated. Maybe because of history, maybe because of tradition. Whatever the reason it’s there and it makes Tokyo a city where underneath much glitter, glamour and bling deep rooted solitude prevails and where its population seems tired and exhausted yet friendly and thoughtful.
It will be interesting. Japan has to change at some point and with it its capital. They have a real problem on their hands when it comes to future generations and just going the old ways will soon no longer work.
Tokyo isn’t really for me. It wasn’t in 2011, it wasn’t in 2012 and it isn’t in 2017.
I much prefer other parts of the country. Having said this, Tokyo is huge and my opinion is based on the areas we have covered in barely a month’s time and from previous visits. I can totally understand that people who come experience the city differently and that’s cool. I mean just look at the metro map to get an idea of the sheer size of the city:
This metro map was created by South Korean design company “zeroperzero“.
Eva for example likes Tokyo. It’s her first time and I agree with her that what Tokyo does do well is to add a new note to a somewhat familiar Asian tune we’ve been listening to for some time now.
Next stop for us is Fujikawaguchiko where we want to take a close look at Mt. Fuji. While there, we will also visit the Aokigahara forest, Japan’s famous suicide forest, where unfortunately people come from all over the country to walk that final step. If we survive, the stop after is Osaka. I loved it in 2011. It was fresh, young, colourful, a Japanese version of Taichung.
I hope it’s going to be as good this time.