15.9.09

Tokyo

First night in the city of the future and my father drags me, reeling from jet-lag, up to the top of the Mori Tower to get a good look at the place. It's amazing. Imagine billions of pulsing diamonds and rubies on deep purple velvet. Imagine that going out in every direction as far as the eye can see. Then push up hundreds of tall oblongs. Add The Fifth Element's glaring billboards and the 'Ray Of Light' video's traffic. You get the picture? Pretty amazing, right?

The science fiction feel of the place is partly a result of a dearth of old buildings. The Tokyo authorities have the compulsive drive to knock down anything that isn't thoroughly modern. And it's not always a good thing. During my visit, my father and I went to the beautiful old Kabuki theatre in the otherwise steel and glass encrusted Ginza district. It's not going to be there much longer, we found out, which is crazy. Not only is it a glorious example of traditional Japanese architecture, but it adds an air of authenticity and history to the plays performed inside.

One wonders if this urge to keep renewing the city has something to do with the perpetual disasters it has lived through. Up until a couple of hundred years ago, Japanese buildings were pretty much made out of wood and paper. Fires wreaked enormous damage. Japan also suffers from regular earthquakes. Modern engineering and building materials have fixed these problems. But the Japanese seem to have gotten used to replacing their buildings, and the practice lives on.

A gaijin like myself should be wary of trying to explain the workings of the Japanese mind. But a visit to Tokyo inevitably prompts one to indulge in a little amateur anthropology. Japanese culture and behaviour appears so strange to western eyes.

The people you meet are always well-mannered and honest. The flipside is that they show great deference to authority, and respect rules and regulations to the letter. The contrast with the motherland appears to me very great. Next to the Japanese, Bulgarians are loud, rude and crooked.

My guess would be that the Japanese mind-set has its root in a profound sense of personal honour, which would make you stick to the rules even if others break them. I often wonder whether the Japanese look down on us bumbling self-serving foreigners, and lament our lack of self-respect.

Deference always has limits. You can only push people so far. And indeed, Japanese history is as rich in rebellions and uprisings as any other. But the civil and honest Japanese spirit remains. Why? I would posit that it is difficult to have honour when you and the people around you are starving and destitute. Perhaps the people of Japan, stuck on an island with little but rice and fish to eat, have taken better care of each other. And now, Japan is the second largest economy in the world. Its people must be pretty content. They must feel that being honest, and following the rules, has made everyone better off.

This sense of personal honour and loyalty stretches back a long way. From kamikaze pilots to the samurai practice of Bushido. The idea that suicide is preferable to compromising the obligations to your dependents and superiors, or to betraying your nation and heritage, is a powerful thread in the history of Japan. I wonder whether it continues to this day. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

We're losing sight of Tokyo as city of the future. So come and check these guys out:

http://www.elliotterwitt.com/lang/en/index.html
http://www.tomiokoyamagallery.com/artists_en/ninagawa_en/
http://www.g-sho.com/guidoargentini/
http://www.gptokyo.jp/artist/index.php?itemid=180

I found them all here.

I also went to the National Art Centre's Annual Show of Contemporary Art, which wowed me in ways I had thought not possible by paint on canvas. I walked around the galleries in stunned euphoria. I wish I could show you the stuff they had in there, but I can't find any of it on the website. And the postcards I bought in the shop are all in Japanese. But the show is on every year. If you ever find yourself in Japan, I urge you to go see.

I emerged from both exhibitions thinking that Japan is surely a nation of aesthetes, and not just in the realms of photography and the visual arts. Walk around Shibuya and witness fashion trends being set before your very eyes. Look up and you'll see architecture that exists nowhere else (check out the Edo Museum in particular). The native pop music seemed a bit derivative to me, but I did spend a productive hour at DJ paradise Recofan's used CD section, where I found all the Kenickie and Bis EPs I could ever want. And then there was Mandrake -- an underground cavern stuffed with piles and piles of every kind of manga you can think of.

All this cultural stuff looks very modern, and American. Perhaps my eye isn't subtle enough to pick up the traces of Japanese tradition in the works I saw. But it does appear that people in Tokyo are much more excited by the outside world than the things found in their own country. I wonder whether this will end up eroding the very particular mores and values you find in Japan. For now, they seem to be holding out pretty well.

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