More observations and impressions from my trip.
On Tokyo life: Tokyo is a model city. There are twelve and a half million people living in 2200 square kilometers (New York City has eight million people in 830 square kilometers), and yet there is virtually no litter, people are mostly polite, and in general everything functions efficiently. People live happily in a much smaller area than we’re used to in the U.S., and most notably have a much smaller “personal bubble” which is immediately noticeable at the train stations. Cars are popular and traffic jams common, but the number of people walking, using a bicycle, and taking the (very efficient) public transit is staggering.
Tokyo life seems to be a dichotomy. The people of Tokyo have wholeheartedly embraced western concepts of consumerism and have even taken it to the next level. Everything is centered around buying, using, and disposing. Vending machines are everywhere, everything is packaged for individual use, and you can even buy a disposable umbrella on rainy days. This consumerism generates an unbelievable amount of waste, yet at the same time, people live very efficiently. While they’re putting $1.10 into a vending machine for six ounces of canned coffee, Tokyo residents are air-drying their clothes, walking and riding bicycles almost everywhere, and eating every bit of food they cook. Life moves quickly and slowly at the same time, which is the biggest culture shock of all.
The costume thing: Tokyo youth love to dress up. I don’t just mean new, designer label clothes (though that’s big too, and part of the mass consumerism), but full out costumes, from popular characters in TV shows, movies, and comic books to historical dress to whatever they want to put together. It’s hard to tell if they do it just for fun or because it’s so easy to become lost in the anonymous crowd here.
The mask thing: Yes, many people in Tokyo wear those paper face masks. This is not so strange because the air here is pretty bad. All trash gets incinerated here (and much of it has been used to construct artificial islands in the bay), and it’s a huge city. Light industrial operations are scattered amongst residential and commercial districts, and there are lots of two-stroke motors used in small bikes and scooters. Even though a lot of the trees that I’m allergic to don’t grow here, I still have to take my medicine because the air is just plain polluted.
The crows: Of all the things in Tokyo that are surprising, the crows are the most so, for two reasons:
1. They’re huge.
2. They sound like people.
When they cry, they sound like someone trying to talk to you — or, more appropriately, like they’re trying to talk to each other. They’re smart, they look menacing, and they’re everywhere on garbage day. These are the birds that look most like descendants of dinosaurs.
On being a foreigner: It’s actually not so strange to visit Tokyo. You don’t need much Japanese; if you can say thank you in a few different ways (domo, arigato, domo arigato, arigato gozaimas, domo arigato gozaimas in rough order of deference) you’ll be as polite as you need to be for a foreigner. All important signs and instructions are in English (and not as broken as you might expect), many Japanese speak conversational English, and if you still don’t understand someone they’re very good on picking up and giving nonverbal cues.
I don’t even feel like I get stared at very much. In fact, other westerners stare at me more than Japanese do, though I’m not sure if this is a look of surprise or an acknowledgment of shared plight. Being six feet tall, I do stand out a little, but not really that much. I’m maybe an inch or two more above the crowd than in the U.S., though I can tell I’m too tall at certain times, like on the trains. The doors are almost exactly six feet tall, and the windows are just below my eye level. I do a lot of ducking to get into and out of places.
Japanese are very interested in how they and Japan are perceived in the U.S., and they’ll eagerly talk to you about it if you give them a chance. In one tiny bar, a guy asked me who the most famous Japanese in America was. These are the things they want to talk about. They’re also very surprised if you know anything about Japanese culture and customs, so it seems that they’re not quite aware of just how popular their culture is in our country. At the wedding party, several Japanese were surprised that I knew how to use chopsticks and that I knew the “Japanese” way to eat sushi (and a few were surprised that I ate sushi at all). Showing interest in this kind of cultural exchange is the fast track to making new friends and being let in on Tokyo’s secrets — though having a brother who speaks the language doesn’t hurt.
Overall, Japan is not as much of a culture shock as I expected. You hear weird stuff in the U.S., like oh, they have square watermelons and crazy porn. But in reality, it’s just a bunch of people living in a big, crowded city. The things that stand out most are little things; that everyone is polite, that space seems smaller, that everything looks clean. But once you get past the expectations, these are people like any other, and there’s as much to learn about the human condition here as any other large city on the planet.