By Dian Hasan | May 18, 2009
Japan: the epitome of a surreal world, one that draws no parallel with any country in the world is a consistent image drawn by visitors who have always been captivated by the sheer difference from any country in the world.
This relates to its history of isolation. Breeding homogeneity and a single culture, with virtually zero contamination from the outside world. Only opening its “doors” and throwing its “tatami” (Japanese ubiquitous mat found in homes) welcome mat to the outside (read: Western) world in 1868. During the tumultuous Tokugawa regime, a period known as Meiji Restoration, with Admiral Perry’s historical visit that marked the beginning of Japan that has flourished into what it is today.
A truly enigmatic country, with people to match, productivity, creativity and a culture like no other. A dichotomy where the lines between indigenous cultural identity and hybrid identify invented from fantasy are blurred.
The world (read: Western) has never wavered its fascination and admiration of Japan, especially in Post WWII, when Japan rose from the ashes, out of its greatest public humiliation in its history (“losing face” that is displayed publicly and recorded, is a utter disgrace for any Japanese, justified even by suicide!), “picked itself up”, and rebuilt its economy (with the “kind” help of her “enemy” it tried so hard to conquer) in Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The world took notice of Japan’s new dominance (not of its war machine, but of its products made of wit and determination) via trade this time, and Japan turned its economy around faster than the world could say “Sony Transistor Radio”, and “Sanyo Water Pump”, two post-war products that took the world by storm in the 1960s. Albeit in different territories, the radio in the US, and the water pump across the developing world.
The Olympics in 1964 solidified Japan’s arrival on the world stage. And earning its place among the world’s industrialized economies ever since.
For most Westerners a trip to Japan to witness and experience – first-hand – its people, and the beautiful land nicknamed “the land of the rising sun”, or the moniker popular in the finance world in the 1980s and 90s as “the land of the rising yen” for its propensity to have among the highest price points on any product, in the world. And the highlight, a culture like no other.
And to see the perfect balance between old vs. new, tradition vs. technology, seamlessly fused together, you wouldn’t know when the traditional sublime tea ceremony ended and the “Asimo” personal assistance robot left the room with your tea cup.
On a similar note, it is a country that will – without doubt – leave a fundamental/permanent/significant/unmistaken imprint. For no where else on the planet will you experience a more comfortable toilet (I kid you not!), the kind that “Toto” has been spoiling customers for years, replete with a heated toilet seat and water spouts that know exactly which part of your lower anatomy to aim for… with soothing warm water jet sprays. You can forever bid your toilet paper “Sayonara”!
And being bowed to at “Depato” department stores with perfectly poised identical looking ladies with no crease in sight in their uniform. White gloves and all, welcoming each and every customer to their palace of consumerism.
For nowhere else on the planet will you witness the latest Birkin Hermes Bag (which even the uber-connoisseur of taste has never seen in the other world’s fashion capitals), festooned with a “Hello Kitty” design, christened as this season’s “It” bag! And you thought a Marukayama design on Louis Vuitton was already strange when it was introduced in 2003! Look no further than “Omotesando” and “Roppongi Hills” to witness the World’s epicenter for Luxury Brands. Making the late Gianni Versace smile from the heavens approving the 6-floor luxury boudoir as a temple to his creation, from nail polish, luxury bags, to dog leashes, and Michelin-approved Café, all under one roof.
For nowhere else will you see a sea of pedestrians crossing massive cross-walks in “Marunouchi” district of downtown Tokyo, gliding at the speed of New Yorkers, but with such synchronized movements that can only be described as a dos-a-dos dance form, without anybody bumping.
The same people that will not only walk in the same pattern, but also behave, eat, smile, talk, react, almost identically. A homogenous society to the extreme. Naturally it’s wise never to generalize, as there are people displaying a genuine individual traits/personality, however, it’s the sameness of the people that fascinate visitors the most.
All of a sudden… you feel like you’re in a giant play, where all the characters are acting the same role.
If you are curious about whether you’d be able to peek into a break of pattern, and see individuality (and personality) on a greater scale, simply wait until night falls. As the sun bids “kumbanwa”, curtains get drawn, and Ginza turns into a circus of blazing neon lights that puts Times Square to shame. This is when your real adventure of a glimpse of Japan’s real culture really begins. Follow the hordes of “Sarariman” (a office worker/professional is called “salaryman”, as you’ll remember that the Japanese language does not recognize the letter “l”, and the sounds blurrs into an “rrr”), walking like obedient ants, heading back to their anthill. There, in the back alleys of Tokyo, lies another universe, where the whiff of hot sake and grilled yakitori on charcoal emanate into your nostrils. Where the cobbled-stone lanes have remained the same for centuries.
These are the watering holes of Tokyo, where the same “robotic citizens” you encountered on the street during the day, emerge out of their shells, remove their “masks” and … transform into fun loving, downright wacky –bordering-insane… drunkards. “Yokoso” (welcome) to Japan’s version of “the air release valve” in the pressure cooker!
This is the direct result of people who clock-in the longest hours in the workplace in the industrialized world, who’s only daily “cocoon” of a home is a home that resembles more of a rabbit burrow, 2 hours by commuter train in Greater Metropolitan Tokyo proper.
And for an even “wilder” departure from Japanese “façade sameness”, you could venture into Shibuya section near the main train station for a glimpse of capsule-size “Love Motels”, that harbor either “Sarariman” who are too inebriated to go home to their families, or those seeking some evening fun.
Come weekend, when the city is void of people, Ginza becomes a pedestrian-only street, action builds up and draws “Shinjinrui” (the new breed, youngsters born after the 1970s) to “Harajuku”, a popular hang out place for the young… and weirdly dressed. For here you will find everything from teenagers clad in BritPunk 80s with torn fishnet stocking and Doc Martens ankle boots, to Elvis and Michael Jackson wannabes, down to sailor moon, gothic Lolita, visual kei, and cosplay will make you wonder what you just witnessed. Begging for translation! Unfortunately not available and simply not applicable, as you won’t find it in anywhere else in the world.
You will be transported into a visual world, where kids are communicating with the latest electronic gadgets that you’ve never imagined. Where there’s more pixie blondes in a city block than in Oslo, and giggling girls always cover their pearlie whites when laughing (its disrespectful to show you teeth to the public), and
As the only realistic way to understand Japanese youth, their unique identities, and appearance, is to enter a world of “Manga” (Japanese comic books) and “Anime” (Japanese cartoons), where fantasy and reality intermingle, meshing between characters from Japanese glorious imperial past and its electronic reality. Best exemplified by “transformers”, another Japanese invention, along with Ramen and Sushi.
To best understand Japan is to go without any pre-conceived notion, with no expectations. And whether you only transit through their super efficient airport, or spend a few weeks traipsing through the major cities – that are easily the cleanest in the world – and catch some countryside, Japan will truly enthrall your soul.
And only when you come back home to your “normal world” will you understand the experience akin to “Blade Runner” meets “Lost in Translation”.
Tokyo, an imprint like no other.