Before my recent trip to Tokyo, Kawasaki and Osaka, I emailed an American friend, “Japan contrasts so sharply with chaotic and dirty Vietnam. Unlike here, almost nothing happens on Japanese sidewalks, no eating, drinking or even smoking!”
He replied, “Myself, I would prefer ‘dirty’ Vietnam to Japan, any day.” Though only in Vietnam as a soldier, he still has fond memories of the country.
On the way to Tan Son Nhat Airport, the young taxi driver asked where I was flying to.
“Tokyo, I answered. “It’s my second time. They have a great subway system, brother,” and it is the most reliable, cleanest, safest and easiest I’ve ever used, with great amenities at most stations. “Who knows when Vietnam will have something similar?”
He guffawed, “We’re five hundred years behind them!”
From Narita, I took three trains to Nippori, Hamamatsucho then Azabujyuban, from where I walked to my room at International House. On the way, I passed the Juban Inari Shrine. All Japanese temples are elegant and understated, even when huge. Crossing the street was suddenly no longer an adventure. Though Vietnamese have become much better at stopping at red lights, many still bristle at the idea.
Japanese do occasionally jaywalk, and I would see more of it in Osaka than Tokyo. There are also more graffiti and littering in the home of takoyaki, Japan’s only remaining red light district and its worst slum. Japanese are not as anal as Germans, who would stand alone at a curb at 3 in the morning, waiting for the walk signal to change, with not a single car in sight in any direction.
Opening the shoji blind, I could see the tastefully landscaped garden where Yukio Mishima had his wedding reception. After unpacking, I became reacquainted with the heated toilet seat, the anus shower whose jets could be adjusted and, most comfortingly, the stream of warm air that dried even my nuts.
Vietnam’s leading novelist of that era, Nhất Linh, also committed suicide, but only quietly, with poisoned wine. Unlike badass Mishima, Nhất Linh didn’t have a gay lover hack at his neck repeatedly with a samurai sword.
During my previous visit to Tokyo, I spoke to a bookstore audience of my admiration for Japanese boldness, “Although transgenderism is in, with everybody cutting his penis off, only a Japanese could come up with the idea of offering it as a meal, at a banquet.” To my surprise, no one there had heard of Mao Sugiyama.
Sugiyama’s ballsy announcement, “Please retweet. I am offering my male genitals (full penis, testes, scrotum) as a meal for 100,000 yen . . . I will prepare and cook as the buyer requests, at his chosen location.”
There was no time to waste. Within hours of arriving, I was in a Roppongi restaurant with a few of my Tokyo friends. While downing beer and sashimi, we talked about their troubled nation.
Translator Miwako Ozawa shared that she didn’t know her neighbors, and that Japanese only say hello to strangers in elevators and on mountain trails. Her husband, photographer Samson Yee, added that I shouldn’t judge Japanese sociability by my friends, for they are all cosmopolitan writers and intellectuals, “If you meet an ordinary Japanese, you’ll have to climb so many walls before you get to know them.” As another indicator of the Japanese’s shrinkage from direct experiences, Samson pointed out that only 23% even hold a valid passport.
We’ve all heard about young Japanese recluses, the hikikomori, but did you know that at least 43% of Japanese between 18 and 34 are virgins? A third had never even been on a single date.
“How did Japanese go from bathing together, men and women, young and old, to being mostly alone?” I asked. No one could answer.
Writer Mieko Kawakami said that Japan’s previous tranquility and equilibrium were achieved only with much sacrifice by women, and the continuing breakdown of traditions is actually freeing women from onerous roles. Probing this theme, she is working on a novel about a woman having a baby without a man.
Many Japanese now live alone, then often die without anyone noticing, sometimes for weeks. Family members don’t call or even email them. Through a friend, I was able to visit an octogenarian who rarely left his messy apartment. His is the generation that built contemporary Japan. In the same complex, we passed a door whose letter and peep slots had been sealed by tape, to prevent the stench of putrefaction from seeping out. It’s a common sight there. With its stigma of sordid death, the apartment will be hard to rent, thus adding to the glut of empty houses in Japan.
The live man’s apartment smelled bad enough. It’s a stagnant, fermented funk which actually made me pause at his genkan, and I’m no olfactory pussy, dwelling in Saigon. Carrying two six packs of Asahi beer as gifts, I braved my way in.
Next to his bed were six bottles of hard liquor and a stack of illustrated sex manuals. Cheered up by such rare visitors, he chattered away, and anyone could tell he must have been quite charismatic in youth, and a ladies’ man. He admitted to having a crush on the woman, sent by a charity organization, who came twice a week to clean.
“Is she young?” I grinningly asked.
“Yes, very young. Maybe 55!”
The neighborhood was a post-war new town development, filled with identical apartment blocks, and very few stores or restaurants within easy walking distance, especially if you’re on your last legs. A playground with its slide and jungle gym sat empty. “This is incredible,” I said to my friend. “We haven’t passed one cafe or bar. If this was Vietnam, people would just sit outside, drink and socialize.” There was a tiny seniors center at a forlorn strip mall. We strayed in to find six old people lounging around a coffee table, sipping tea. When they all got up to leave, I asked, “Why are they all leaving at once?”
“It’s the Japanese way. We do everything together!” Or at least they used to.
Convenience stores are ubiquitous in Japan. At a Family Mart, the owner told us that for many old people nearby, his little store was not just where they could get groceries, but a few words addressed to them, plus a smile.
In Japan, more than a third of the population are older than 60, and adult diapers outsell those for babies, yet everywhere you look, there are cartoon figures. It’s a country that balances its business suit graveness with the infantile. A supermarket chain’s logo is a kawaii dog, with a slogan in English, “Smile every day!” Vending machines feature a round-eyed boy flashing a victory sign, “We’ll Be Happy!” Pachinko parlors are tsunamis of cartoon characters and childish colors.
One day, I talked to a class at Waseda University, and among the students was a remarkable 20-year-old. Having lived in Indonesia and Australia, she was fluent in Indonesian and English by age 15, but for three years in high school, took English courses, like everybody else, and to not show up her classmates or teachers, pretended she didn’t already know the language, and even faked a Japanese accent. At age 16, she became an idol singer, thus a minor celebrity. Idol starlets are presented as impossibly cute airheads, thus her profile page lists her interests as Rilakkuma, teddy bears and panda dolls, but away from this public persona and obligation, she is a supremely mature and confident woman.
Her singing career, then, is merely theater, a form of cosplay, and she’s been playing it well, but it’s nearly time to move on, hence her serious studies at a good university. Japan, too, has shown an exceptional ability to switch gears. From not eating beef for over a millenium, it now produces the best beef in the world. Overnight, it went from being America’s fiercest enemy to its most ardent emulator.
In contrast to the spectacularly colorful images of Ginza or Shinjuku, much of Tokyo is rather drab, and its citizens are mostly dressed quite somberly. As for school kids, they’re austerely uniformed. Even Germans aren’t so severely attired. For most Japanese, then, the windows for making any individual statement, in fashion or anything else, are actually tiny.
At a subway station, there’s a poster reminding people to hold onto the handrail while riding the escalator. The illustraton showed two long rows of commuters, separated by sex, with all the men in identical blue suits and yellow ties, and all the women in identical pink coats.
In Vietnam, the improvised, slap dash and sloppy are routine, but in Japan, each detail has been well-calibrated, and every gesture well-choreographed and rehearsed. This rigorous attention to particulars result in Japan’s stunning beauty, for nothing there is ugly, not even its kitsch, but perhaps I’m just betraying my gaudy Vietnamese esthetics here. In Osaka, there’s a supermarket chain, Super Tamade, that features bombastic, multi-colored displays of lights outside, while over the merchandises, there are neon and crayon-colored cartoon whales, dolphins, octopuses, blow fish, submarines, airplanes and helicopters, etc. Pointing out a Super Tamade, my Japanese friends expected me to laughingly sneer, but I only swooned, “That is very beautiful.” Who needs Jeff Koons or acid when you can just shop at Super Tamade?
In Shibuya, I stared for a good minute at a small, round, cast iron plate on the sidewalk, because the floral pattern on it was so gorgeous, and many Japanese manhole covers belong in art museums.
Dining with editor Shigeki Tabata, I picked up a bottle of soy sauce and gushed, “Look at how beautiful this graphic is. Look at this subtle greenish gray!”
Editor and translator Motoyuki Shibata tempered my enthusiasm, “When everything is overly determined, it can be oppressive,” and I do agree, and perhaps Japanese life should be more unscripted, for the sake of its stressed out citizens. High, exact standards are particularly burdensome to those who have to serve, Samson pointed out to me, and he’s witnessed angry commuters scream at subway employees.
Even more than Singapore, Japan is filled with signs telling everyone to do everything. At a small neighborhood temple, I encountered a sign showing a round-eyed schoolgirl in uniform, and instructions on “How to worship.” Written in both English and Japanese, they weren’t just meant for ignorant foreigners, “1. Bow twice. 2. Clap your hands twice and pray. 3. Bow once more.” At subway stations, there are elaborate charts showing which numbered car to get into to make your particular transfer the easiest. Near apartments blocks filled with old people, large signs encourage you to say hello and smile at the old farts to cheer them up. Sidewalks are pasted with warnings against smoking in public. Hotel lobbies forbid the use of cellphones. Has there ever been a more anal society?
In Vietnam, on the other hand, rules and boundaries are often never acknowledged or ignored, so everything blurs and blends. Very well-traveled, with three years in Africa and one in India, Samson has visited Vietnam three times. Like me, he likes to wander aimlessly, so once found himself in an alley, where he sat down at a restaurant table. Only after minutes did a woman appear to give him a cup of tea.
“I’d like a menu, please,” he asked, but she looked surprised.
“Yes, a menu, please.”
She laughed, “This no restaurant. This house!”
Every state uses its educational system to indoctrinate, and in Japanese schools, kids are forced to form human pyramids, as high as ten tiers, a practice that each year causes more than 8,000 injuries requiring insurance payments. On her phone, Mieko Kawakami showed me image after image of children periliously stacked. From 1969 to 2016, there were actually nine deaths from kumitaiso, but to infuse unity and a sense of collective achievement, it persists, to the disgust and anguish of many parents.
Check out Kyary Pamyu Pamyu in her music video, “Candy Candy,” sung in infantile English. At the beginning, she runs, most bizarrely, with a piece of toast in her mouth, past a row of suburban houses, with their parked cars, manicured shrubs and kids’ sporting equipment. With her huge pink hairbow, strawberry colored hair and a pale pink and purple skirt that resembles an upside down lotus, deifying her nether regions, she’s a kawaii fantasy streaking through drab and uniform normalcy.
In Osaka, middle-aged women are known for their short curls and preference for clothing with the spots, stripes or face of their favorite big cat, but in four days of roaming the city, from its lowest to most chichi neighborhoods, I encountered only a single cheetah or tiger fashionista. Hopefully, this regional distinctiveness is not fading. Roar on, Osaka oba-chan!
To the amusement of my Japanese friends, I kept returning to Jonathan’s, a chain restaurant, for there I found an evocation of a much gentler and cheesier America. Many dishes were Japanese spins on American comfort food. Bathed in bright lights and muzak, I happily ate hamburger patty smothered in demi-glace, roast beef kissed with a mild horseradish, fried chicken, potato wedges, french fries, corn and spaghetti, the last prepared with salmon roe, scallops and seaweed. The Coke, 7-up and punch flowed endelessly at the drink bar. I felt returned to a much improved version of my school cafeteria in Tacoma, Washington. There was a curious offering called “doria,” which turned out to be a rice gratin, topped in this instance by four Hiroshima oysters. Yum, yum, yum. Near the cash register was a selection of cheap toys, and the plastic coffee cups came in baby blue, pink and yellow.
Perhaps because so much has been lost, nostalgia, even for someone else’s past, is a strong undercurrent in Japan. One manifestation of this is the pervasive cult of childhood, when all doors are supposedly still open. In his crisp, well-tailored suit, a virginal salaryman stares at the soft porn dancing girls while colored lights flash and hundreds of metal pellets bounce downward. Though with the world on his shoulders, he’s still a child.