In Tokyo, I finally had a chance to pause for a couple of days, to stop characterising taking taxis or subways or buses between interviews as “sightseeing.” But is Tokyo really a place to catch one’s breath? I’m not so sure.
There’s a cliché of Asian inscrutability, and I think in Japan’s case, it might be earned. On one hand, the society seems incredibly familiar. There are the totems of a modern, consumer society. Japanese food in Japan is, in general, a whole lot more like Japanese food in America than Chinese food in China is American Chinese takeout. There are shops and boutiques and pubs and bars. It’s a thoroughly first-world power.
But, then. Then. First, there’s the language. Go to the Chinese countryside and you’re likely to encounter more English speakers. Go to Indonesia, to Morocco, to impoverished Hindi India. Yes, I’m in their country; I should be able to say more than “konnichiwa,” “arigato,” and “eigo o hanasemasuka?” On the other hand, this is a Globish world we live in; it’s an impediment.
What gets me, though, is the dichotomous society. In many ways, it’s a formal old-fashioned place, full of bowing and -san-ing of names. Ritual matters, respect matters.
Beyond the buttoned-up-ness, though, is such incredible bawdiness. I met up with a Tokyo friend on a Wednesday night at a sashimi place full of besuited businessmen. You’d have thought, though, that I’d parachuted into a restaurant-wide bachelor party, such was the effusive toasting, the frat-boy camraderie.
Likewise, I am somewhat mystified by Japanese women. I don’t know how to reconcile submissiveness with the provocative outfits, the manga cartoonish posing. And don’t let’s get started on the fake food even nice Japanese restaurants display out front. Because what diner isn’t lured in by plastic sushi?
None of this is criticism. If anything, it’s an admission of failing. I didn’t get it. But maybe that’s kind of arrogant, too. Is it arrogant of me to believe I can “get” a place in less than a week? Probably. So, I’m justifiably humbled.