The honeymoon ended for me about halfway through day three. Up until then, things were really quite good—everything around me seemed at once mystifying and nostalgic, and I was still reeling from culture shock at having just come from a rural town in the sticks to arguably the biggest city in the world. It seemed that in many ways I was living a charmed life. Despite something of a language barrier (when I first arrived I had all but forgotten my Japanese and could hardly speak a word of it) and the fact that money was tight, problems were all but nonexistent—if I wanted to go somewhere, there was nothing stopping me, and if I wanted to buy most anything, chances were that a nearby store sold it. I was a veritable Charlie in the sprawling, ever-evolving chocolate factory that is Tokyo. I bought foods that I hadn’t eaten in years, went back to see familiar sights I had only remembered from pictures, and all the while, soaked in the unmistakable city feeling that I had been bereft of for four months. But somewhere down Memory Lane, things turned sour. So much about this place has gotten under my skin, and though I know that many of my close friends live here or are strongly connected to Japan in one way or another, I felt strongly compelled to write this.
Tokyo is an extremely lonely place. Ironic, largely because it is the densest city in the world population-wise, but aside from the sheer number of people, I have never felt more completely and intoxicatingly alone. Everyone seems less concerned about the multitudes of other people living among them than they are about themselves and their own lives. The best way to describe the phenomenon for me has been a “me-centric” or “me-obsessed” culture, fixated on beauty and fashion. For many people, especially the young and the female, these two qualities supersede most other earthly needs, and include braving physical discomfort, cold, and hunger simply to fit into a society that can be so callously judgmental. I get the pervasive sense that I’m not good enough—going anywhere, I am surrounded by people whose superficial façade to the world represents the sum total of their existence. Their clothes and bags are stylish, their hair is permed, and their painted faces wear a mask of cool distance—the impenetrable, impersonal gaze that isolates people from one another. It is this weighty, invisible silence that perpetually lingers in the air, broken only by the raucous carelessness of insobriety.
But it also goes deeper than that. Difficulties in communication far exceed congenial social awkwardness and at times feel like a full-blown crisis. The trains are eerily silent, eating alone at meals is incrediblx common, and it is rare for someone to go so far as to make any physical contact at all—even if that means setting money aside in a small basin instead of handing it directly to a shopkeeper. Hand-touching means spreading germs, and is scarce for the same reason that hugging is, and why wearing N95 masks is so common. Everyone seems absolutely terrified of getting sick. Most everything in the city is immaculately clean. But in reality, a little dirt is a good thing. Studies have proven that Japanese and Singaporeans are more at risk for some diseases than most of the rest of the world because their immune systems are not used to dealing with germs. People are almost criminally polite, in a way that makes it nearly impossible to know what people are actually feeling or thinking. In my experience, it has only been talking with people out of context that has given me a window into their true attitudes.
There are things about China that I don’t like. In fact, there are many things, as some of this blog can attest to. But somehow, even those dislikes are starting to become less agitating than endearing. The pushing and shoving on the train, the fact that customers yell to get the wait staff’s attention at a restaurant, the pervasive dirt and grime—it’s all real. Nothing here is sterilized or dumbed down—people, interactions, filth, poverty, environmental hazards, you name it—are up close and in your face. Despite all the beautifying of Beijing for the Olympics, China can’t help but bear it’s true self—even if at its core it may not be the most clean or polite culture in the world. China seems to acknowledge that and embrace it. People spit on the trains, there is trash in the streets, and the perpetual gray sky over Beijing has turned into a national joke.
If China is a land of lawlessness, then Japan is most certainly its opposite. There are rules for absolutely everything, so much so that even conversations feel almost eerily scripted. Shopkeepers berate you with honorific superlatives every time you enter a store, there are marked pedestrian and bike pathways that people follow meticulously, and customers line up neatly at almost every social occasion that dictates queuing. A country that makes robots so well that its people almost seem to resemble those artificial creations. There are eating customs, drinking customs, rules for dealing with co-workers and family, and at least three different levels of formality. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if sexual relations themselves were all but deprived of spontaneity, playfulness, and sensuality. It would seem that sexual frustration is so intense here that Japan has become a society full of off-color sexual practices, including everything from hentai (pornographic manga and anime) to vending machines specializing in used female undergarments. There is even a word designated for men who grope women in the subway. Japan’s suicide rate is the highest of any developed country in the world, as is its yearly rate of new patients infected with HIV . The medical condition known as hikikomori is wholly unique to Japan.
Worst of all, instead of facing these problems at their core by examining the mentality and emotional motives behind them, Japan paints a polished veneer over them. They have created women-only cars in the train, pushed social outcasts like burakumin and the homeless to the absolute fringes of society to avoid “tarnishing” their culture, fail to educate their children about safe sex practices and HIV prevention, and sweep away everything illicit and seedy into a thriving underground subculture. There are people who consciously go against the majority culture, but they do so at a cost—often with a great deal of social stigma. Others do so by changing their physical appearance, with piercings or died hair or funky outfits, partly as a cry for attention. The most extreme cases do so by committing suicide.
The Harajuku subway line was held up today for about a half hour, a virtual anomaly in Japan because as a matter of principle, the trains in Japan are punctual to the second. Any disturbance to this otherwise perfect cicadic cycle would seem almost unbearable, as evidenced by the line of anxious ticket-holders stretching halfway around the block. When the trains finally resumed , we discovered the cause of the hold-up—a suicide in front of the train forced it to stop suddenly, release all of its passengers, and send in a clean-up crew to take care of the body. When I heard this from my friend Jazmin who is studying abroad here and who I went to visit this afternoon, I was horrified. She explained that this was nothing new—suicides on this particular subway line were common—almost daily—such that there is even an announcement to alert passengers that they may experience a sharp brake and be asked to exit the train. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to institutionalized suicide since euthanasia, but in this instance, there seems almost no opposition or concern. Passengers are all but desensitized to the entire procedure, lamenting the wait time more than the loss of a human life.
Japan is everything China is not, but by the same token, China is everything that Japan is not (but perhaps wishes it could be)—a country with a very large middle class, no problematic alliances with Western powers, and a society in which no one questions the government. In China, I feel guilty for having money and coming from a comparatively privileged background, but in Japan, it’s almost reversed. Especially now that I’m getting paid a Chinese salary, many of the people around me have a vastly more disposable income than me—but even so, it’s hard to resist getting caught up in material things. I often wonder how the older generation must feel about all of this—if this obsession with self and material wealth is the Japan they envisioned during their war-ravaged childhoods of the 1950s.
Inherent in all of this nay-saying is a paradox. Why would I resent a country that stands for everything that is commonly though to be good—clean facilities, impeccable service, and useful innovations in organization? Perhaps it’s because I have so deeply ingrained the ideals of tidiness and efficiency that encountering an entire country where those are standard practices has scared me off and made me rethink my own values. Rarely does a day pass where you encounter real difficulty or have the sense that one thing or another is not exactly in its place. I feel safer walking around here than I do in my own neighborhood in New York. In fact, almost every precaution has been taken to ensure a smooth, carefree existence. But doesn’t too much comfort make you stagnate? Perhaps that can account for the scores of older Americans who have chosen to live their whole lives in Japan, the one country in the world more comfortable than their homeland. Living in China has made me grow stronger, whereas Japan in many ways has left me feeling pampered and helpless. Then again, maybe it is just Tokyo. So much of my study abroad experience in Osaka was about growing and learning in a new place and not met with nearly the same vehemence as I have discovered so far on this return trip.
I haven’t been eating a lot lately, mostly as an attempt to save money on this trip. My diet has consisted largely of conbini (convenience store) packaged baked goods, snacks, and fish products wrapped in seaweed and mayo. It is possible then that some of my frustrations with Japan stem from that hunger. It feels as though I’m half-awake, drifting only partly in reality. The other part of me feels like Chihiro in the movie Spirited Away—like I’m the last sensible person in the country, powerlessly standing by as Japan turns itself into a pig feeding at the trough.