Daily Archives: September 30, 2007

Notes on Japan

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Last week I returned from a fantastic 11 day adventure in Japan–a country I had not previously been to and which I can now say is the most unique nation I’ve ever visited. In some ways Japan is like the U.S. or other hyper-developed nations (i.e. very modern, very tech-happy, very indulgent), but in other ways it is very, very different. My mind is full of interesting observations and tales of cross-cultural confusion from my trip, but rather than re-hash our itinerary (which was rigorous, to say the least), I’ll just randomly pontificate about some of the things I found most interesting.

I. Japanese Hipsters
If you’ve read my blog over the past few weeks, you know how fascinated I am with hipster culture. Thus, a trip to Japan was a dream come true for hipster-watching. If you ever go to Tokyo, a must-stop area is Harajuku (immortalized in the Gwen Stefani song, “Harajuku Girls”). Here, on a bridge near the train station, is the mecca for underground fringe fashion that might be described as anime-infused Mary Poppins-meets-Marilyn Manson milkmaid couture (see pictures). But these kids are more “freak” than hipster; it’s more like a Halloween party in Harajuku than it is a fashion show. Then who are the real hipsters? The answer, as I found out, is 90% of all Japanese kids age 15-25. What is “hip” in America now is the norm for all kids in Japan. The “emo” look is worn by even the most traditional-minded youths in this country. The ragged Kate Moss heroin look is even more ubiquitous. What has happened in this uber-prosperous nation is that “cool” has become the regular, the mundane, the mainstream. Walking down Takeshita street (the under-21 Melrose Avenue of Tokyo), pretty much every kid I passed was way cooler looking than anyone I know in the States. But they probably aren’t REALLY that cool; and they probably wouldn’t say they are any hipper than any other wealthy young Tokyo-ite. How could they be? They look just as hip as everyone else in Tokyo! It’s just the way they dress. It’s just the way it is. Cool is the new mainstream in Japan. Perhaps afashionable nerds will become the next superstars.

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II. The Salaryman
When I first got off the subway in Akihabara on my first night in Tokyo, the streets were swarming with black-suited, white-shirted clones with briefcases: better known as “salarymen.” Tokyo, and most of the urban areas in Japan, is obsessed with work. I suspect this country relates more to the whole “live to work” motto as opposed to “work to live.” Thousands of salarymen crowd the streets and subways after work (which they sometimes stay at until very, very late at night). They then “unwind” by putting money in Pachinko machines, or drinking the night away in some bar, or just smoking up a storm in some restaurant (you can smoke and drink ANYWHERE in Tokyo… there are beer and cigarette vending machines on every block). Some salarymen venture to the seedier streets to meet a “companion” for the night, or they just find a “love hotel” (which are ubiquitous in Japan). To finish the night, many go to public baths or “Onsen” (hot spring spas), or just take a soak in the tub back home. All the money they make is strictly controlled by their wife back home (the women handle all money transactions in Japan), who keeps a tight watch over her husband’s gambling habit.

III. Have a nice day!
Lest the above descriptions paint Japan in a negative light, I have to say that first among my impressions of this country is that the people are, by-and-large, the nicest people of any country I’ve ever been to. Whenever I had any inkling of a confused expression on my white face, it wasn’t long before someone appeared out of the blue to ask if I needed help (you can set your watch by it… like most everything in Japan). And if you’re lucky enough to be invited in to a Japanese home for a meal (as I was on two separate occasions), you experience off-the-chart levels of hospitality. They throw unholy portions of food at you during meals, as well as dangerous amounts of sake and Suntory (whiskey), all the while practicing their English on you and looking intensely delighted by everything you say or do (“Oh rearry?” they say, even when they might not completely understand what you’re saying). The effect of the overwhelming displays of hospitality and kindness I experienced in Japan has left me truly embarrassed for my own failings in this area. How odd that I have to go halfway around the globe—to a nation where Christianity is almost as foreign as soap in bathrooms (yeah, they don’t use it)—to see a superior display of “Christian” virtues like charity, humility, and hospitality. If only for that, the trip was well worth it.