Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tokyo - take it or leave it /Ch.15 Ignorance


What would you say to people's oblivion to even domestic news beyond just entertaining and 'cute'? 
Tokyo people mostly have no idea what's happening in the country or even their own city, beyond tabloid level highlights. Younger generation (~ 30s) rarely watches TV or browses through the news online (not to mention how poorly it's represented in Japanese by mainstream media, bought & sold to the owners controlling every breath they take).
Strangely enough, locals are only interested in extremely local information spec leaving out any 'uncomfortable' events, like let's say related to sensitive issues of politics, gender inequality, and lately nuclear energy.

News about the outside world is largely unrequited as unnecessary (unless somehow connected with Japan). Knowledge about anything outside Japan except for the few cliches is abysmal due to inadequate education and total lack of interest about anything beyond the border except for immediate entertainment (like sports events and such). 
So called 'graduates' from top Japan universities, employed by the top companies and public institutions exhibit less knowledge or interest in any international or domestic affairs than pupils in my own 6th grade geography and history classes. 

Shocking as it is, the situation doesn't stop to surprise when 'elite' universities grads are vaguely aware of WWII (not knowing even what was Japan's part in it beyond some primitive TV period drama completely lacking any historic realities),  haven't even heard of WWI (mentioned in their Business English text) or what was Japan position then. 

Surprisingly, all the local areas seem to remember rather minuscule in importance  squabbles between various prefectures dating hundreds of years back but still inciting a deep distrust to the point of them never 'inter-merry' even now, in 21century.
Extreme local always topples anything else in importance, making the phrase 'we, Japanese' (regularly addressed at foreigners) particularly shallow and hypocritical.

You'd think the capital will be another story, with all the people in the mix and all the promises of internationality. 
You'd be sadly mistaken. 
As this 'capital' is just a patchwork of local towns with constant influx of thousands of newcomers from around the country that only identify themselves with their birth place, this is not to be.

Few people are well travelled and knowledgeable, mostly of the older generation, 60+. But the flow has been steadily declining since 2000, as fewer and fewer youngsters show any interest in studying or working abroad, even with enough finance or sponsored by the companies citing all the 'inconveniences' (mainly related to food and language).

Any interest in outside world is rapidly shrinking despite any promises globalization may offer. That's why after decades of pointless attempts at 'learning' English through the decades of outdated practices, with teachers lacking basic English skills themselves and somehow paid for this fiasco of a job, and without any interest in actual events in English-speaking countries this capital (as the rest of the country except for the immediate tourist zones) remain obliviously unchanged and still is somehow surprisingly aspiring to 2020 Olympics. 
Good luck, visitors! You are going to need it.

Tokyo - take it or leave it /Ch.14 Mythes & reality

Mythes & reality): 

You can choose to read make-believe stories about space age plumbing in every corner of the city and ignore old squatting installations in most older (over 15years) buildings with non-existent hot water, hand soap or dustbins. You could try to go past the dingy restrooms in the old building of the flagship department store that sells ostrich skin slippers for $500 and at the same time let random cockroaches run their errands few meters away from Cartier display. You could try to find explanation for reclining towards the railways narrow platforms edges despite the scary number of people falling under trains. 
You could brush off the fact that central heating is unheard of by most and its existence unrecognized and this 'high tech' city continues to utilize kerosine heaters on a regular basis by most households citing low cost. Just imagine the fumes - this is the smell of winter mixing up with still preserved in naphthaline winter wear that normally signifies the change of season.
Journalism is business and few venture to tell what they actually see or know reasonably assuming they won't be published. 
They feed people delusions that most never bother to question or check. 

It's not about what is better or worse in a large scheme of life. The reality as it is with all good, bad and trivial should be acknowledged no matter how pretty or not it might be. It could spare newcomers a lot of headache and failed expectations. 

Tokyo - take it or leave it / Ch.13 Rock-bottom


There will come days when you'll learn to loathe and despise this city and its people. And make no mistake they will. Numerous little things piling up, bearing on you and finally with the last straw braking camel's back overwhelmingly powerful avalanche falls on you with all its force. 
There could be a cluster of reasons. Dull ineptness, inability to deal with most trivial things without blowing them out of proportion and still refusing to move towards any kind of solution. Repetitive zombi-like mantra of being the best, most hard-working (hard translates directly to long hours, not the result), safest, cleanest etc etc etc, that after being heard for the 1000th time makes you want to scream: 'Wake up! Look around! Take the bloody chip out of your brain and see, think, learn, compare real experiences before ever opening pointless mouth.'
But again, real emotions aren't welcome, 'patience'  (read: ignorance), lazy hypocrisy of never needing to learn or understand protected by set of mantras hammered in since childhood, through 'education' system and during job training. 

You probably can apply this to many capitals to some extend. But in this particular one it reaches the hight of absolute perfection of its artificiality. Not unlike the instant food that replaced all other types in its majority. All the glitter coming off at sunrise dissolving into the grey concrete jungle that eats you up and spits you out every single day digesting in its vast stomach and sometimes you wonder if this survival game is actually worth playing. 

Tokyo - take it or leave it / Ch.12 Things you'll miss

Things you'll miss): 

Space, green, flowers, space again, and some more space.
Pretty photos on calendars and promotional posters with all the beauty of Sakura trees and mountains is another world. What most don't know is the size of crowds gathering in/around those. For every tree in the city there must be thousands of people craving some green. It's a scary view except for the west side that is closer to the mountains and still has landscape untouched (at least for now) by the unyielding and ruthless construction industry who's only purpose is to find and seize any remaining patch of land with the sole purpose of erecting another modern architectural atrocity that will hover over your head covering the sun protruding its limbs to the sky.  

That explains the sad figure of only 3.2% green space in Tokyo area with most of it being on the west side. For the comparison, London has over 40%.

Tokyo - take it or leave it /Ch.11 Surprises


At times very randomly you would be surprised by people and their actions, sweet and thoroughly unexpected.
Like today, when a young man with some disability came in the train coach, set and then few minutes later asked the other young man next to him if he could help him to tighten the laces on his boots. The young man turned to him with the shy smile and helped him, without a second thought or hesitation. 

Or when an older men offered you a handful of little colorful origami birds and smiles.

Bouts of kindness come and go. Initially many of us would stop to help instead of rushing through endless corridors without looking around. City does bend people, mold them, toughening up to the point when life is just a formula of survival necessities. 
It's too easy to loose yourself in this turbulent sea trying to navigate it in various weather conditions and not to fall overboard with slim chance to be picked up. 

Surprises come unexpectedly in various forms. Like a young man's (going through 
Omiai obstacle course for 2 years) 
answer to the question what he expects from the prospective partner. He simply said: 'I want to be loved'.

Tokyo - take it or leave it / Ch.10 How safe is safety

How safe is safety):

Despite all the mythical 'safety' in all the right places in day hours there's clearly another side to it too. Something you may never encounter if you so choose but it'll still be there like a dark side of the Moon.
Still, at this point you can walk most streets and don't look back to check on people and surroundings in the dark of evenings. 
Unless of course, you happen to be a young woman living alone. The fact does attract weirdos that are also large in numbers and safely harbored by the city's vast size allowing them to operate as they please without much chance to be caught in a wrongdoing act or even if to be seriously prosecuted. Everyone here is familiar with the word 'chikan' or 'pervert' in translation that are famous for molesting people (of both genders as urban legends go), mainly on crowded transport or dark alleys. The category is wide in terms of age speck, anything from 16 to 80, and also in the social standing, not seldom including higher ranking public officials. Cases and statistics that we know of via media. Imagine what we don't know, as most cases are hardly reported. According to the local data, no less than 60% of female population here has experience of being molested at some point in their life. 
Some dismiss this as 'minor' crime as opposed to the violence. I won't be so sure to feel optimistic about this either. Violent crimes against women exist but go largely unreported except for the high profile cases widely featured in the press. 
Being a woman here presents definite challenges. And speaking of 'safety' we might remember English teacher who was murdered by her student turned stalker within 3 months of her arrival in Tokyo.
Stalking is another vice that plugs this city in rather disturbingly huge numbers that according to NPA (National police academy) doubled in the last couple of years prompting certain changes in legal procedures.

Safety is always relative. Even things you don't see on the surface or avoid still lurk somewhere in dark shadows  and need to be acknowledged. Big city always has its secrets that it's not in a hurry to reveal and that are hidden deep below. 

Tokyo - take it or leave it / Ch.9 Out and back

Out and back

It's the city that makes you long for a getaway (however short) but you are secretly afraid you might not resist the temptation to keep running until facing some desolate shore and than only boat and airplane will be able to save you carrying over the great water. 
Leaving the city lifts your spirits and gives an illusive hope. Seeing life on the outside fills you with refreshing ideas on how wonderful it would've been to never come back.
The sun is shining on your dreams that you dare to dream again, simple things soften the heart and slowing pace releases coiled up for years tension in a slow lazy motions. It seems unreal at first, being off the insane track, living and breathing effortlessly and without the dread of the looming day ahead. 
Days are passed in a string of new (or long forgotten) pleasures and impressions painted stroke after stroke on an innocently fresh canvas.
The City is left behind, deliberately erased from the mind proving the point of being out of sight.
Life suddenly seem simpler, brighter and more manageable.

On the day of the departure the inevitable dread is creeping in and trying to assemble clouds above your ahead. You push it on the back of your mind determined to savor these final hours of freedom, overcoming the overwhelming desire to run further away screaming until the ghost of the concrete jungle is so far behind that any crazy thought of the return would be easily discarded as irrelevant. 
But like a criminal you return to the place of the crime, defeated (for now) yet already plotting another escape that would tear another ----- chaining you to this prison wall. 
Coming back feels like a squeeze into a narrow tunnel. Your whole being starts to panic. Every step is a trap pulling you inside this giant mechanism that feasts on flesh and blood of humans that constructed it to their own demise. Virtual vampire that hunts quietly, creeping through dimly lit streets, hiding in the corners, ready to ambush another innocent soul that haven't yet learned to play the Big City game, harboring residual illusions, still mesmerized by vastness and carefully crafted neon presentation, proud of its flashy facade that covered very little to even notice the hungry monster inside it all.
Being back in the game means plunging yourself into the wilderness of human existence locked into the concrete maze trying to solve the riddle that should ultimately get you out of here. At least that's the dream. 
Crossing the threshold you take a deep breath, close eyes and immerse yourself in the ink black waters. 
Hopefully, the air will suffice, till the next break.

Tokyo - take it or leave it / Ch.8 Transport from hell

Transport from hell):

Multiple train lines run through   Tokyo like enormous veins constantly transporting people via especially bulging in rush hours vessels with all the 'pleasures' of 150-200% capacity. Meaning? Crowds are literally plastered against the walls, windows and other unfortunate souls making this trip every single day descending and ascending all the circles of hell with methodical precision, devoid of emotions, stonewalling the outside world with all kind of gadgets helping to disconnect into oblivion, until the next 
swallows you in of spits you out. 
It probably true about most large cities. Tokyo gives it a special edge of a quiet desperation without any resistance. People long ago broken by this unyielding machine stopped protesting and just settled into accepting anything that comes with it, however paradoxical or tragic. 
Sheer indifference is the most frightening. 
Delays are inevitable part of life, eating your time and grinding your nerves without any hope for the change. Few raindrops or snow flakes melting in the air can plunge this 'reliable' transport into an upheaval with thousands stranded unable to get to work or home. That might explain why the large number of suicides here is committed on train tracks (despite the sheer horror of it).  

The ultimate revenge?..

Friday, June 27, 2014

Tokyo - take it or leave it /Ch.7 Change without changing

Change without changing):

People here love talking about  'changes' but don't for a minute subscribe to the thought. The meaning is too superficial.
Deep down most are terrified of any change: big, small or tiny. Even little detour from the scheduled path can easily plunge everything into total chaos. If you are looking for the quick thinking on the go, you'd be disappointed. The concept of 'emergency' doesn't seem to exist. Things are done they way they were for decades as planned, laid out, approved, stamped on by numerous officials and executed with the iron precision regardless changing circumstances (as it has proven during the Fukushima crisis). Crisis management is poor, badly thought through, and mostly reliant on people to self-organize and somehow manage and persevere.
That explains the slowest ambulance ride you can ever imagine, crawling through the streets with the 'safe' speed of 40km/h. Bear in mind, ambulance stuff isn't legally allowed to perform any medical procedures on a patient before reaching a hospital. You can be sure they'll deliver him/her eventually dead or alive, as hospitals are allowed to refuse the patient citing the lack of space or staff. In several high profile cases people ended up dead before they got any medical attention being refused by numerous hospitals. 
Following protocols always overrules people's needs and people seem rather content with that. Very few ever start any litigation as it's considered somehow 'shameful' and could take decades. 
Life on the same rail is neatly arranged and it's all that matters, eventualities aside.  
People thrown out of the 'path' are largely ignored and are often powerless to change their circumstances. 

Advice? Hold on to your rail and try not to loose the grip. 

Tokyo - take it or leave it /Ch.6 When passions run high

When passions run high):

Sometimes you can hate this place so much that the only thought pulsating in your exhausted brain is to head for the airport and don't look back. Some have done just that. Others cooled off and persevered longer, much longer than it was planned.
Some days you can physically feel how this giant faceless mass is slowly strangling you, sucking the last air out of your lungs, like a rolling pin flattening you into something you are not and never will be. 
The constant struggle is excruciating. It's never completely over and it is hanging somewhere close waiting to wager another war that one day only one of us is going to win. I wonder what it would look like. 
Emotions dulled up by months and years of identical copying are suddenly sharp like razors and ready to lock in the final battle of whims. It's not a pretty picture but it surely tests what you're made of.

You raise your imaginary sword and plunge into the battle like a little Hobbit against the dark forces of Mordor. 

Tokyo - take it or leave it /Ch.5 Timeless childhood

Timeless childhood):

One peculiar thing about this city is that people's  behavior (regardless their age) can strike you as childish. Refusal to grow up until way into their 30s, worshipping Tokyo Disneyland that seem to serve more adults than kids, obsession with youthful cuteness bordering insanity when some 50/60year olds insisting on dressing up like 20year olds sincerely believing that loosing enough weight should do the trick, possibly.., from behind...
The way to speak, insisting on girlish giggly talk, quickly spreading among young males is slightly shocking and disturbing. Fashion caters heavily to the concept with kiddy style short pants on everyone age 5-75, ribbons and hairstyles from comic books.

Serious topics are mostly avoided, things must be kept light and there's a lot of forced laughter. Many will be convincing you that the only way to open up is after few drinks. Drinking is apparently another 'tradition' that is praised as 'healthy' and necessary to connect with society. You hardly find any negative attribute of alcohol here with rampant advertisement and kids being at the table with drinking adults through their formative years as a norm. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Tokyo - take it or leave it /Ch.4 Remedial wins

Remedial wins):

Conformism is the key (the only key) to any kind of success and this says everything. Character, personality, knowledge, experience - irrelevant. Blank sheet without opinion to scribe on all that's deemed relevant or necessary is the ideal choice of any institution here, public or private. Being part of a group is the only viable existence. Any hint of a true character will get you discarded as non-useful, high brow and potential 'trouble-maker'. Slow, docile, taking double time to complete the simplest work project (often with the help of others at their own time) is praised any time over intelligence, efficiency and original train of thought, for being desperate, devoted and obedient. 
Globalization made little impact on those choices and the country proceeds to strive to change without changing primary mindset, if not crawling back even further, avoiding any glimpse of reality to be recognized or taken into a consideration. But I am digressing.

Back to conformity on Tokyo scene. It covers all areas of life without questioning the validity with passing years and constant failures that expose gaping holes needed to be patched.
Holding on to the only reality known, deep inside terrified of everything coming from outside as of personal danger,  constantly suspicious of outsiders, uncomfortable facts, distorting Disney version reality carefully assembled stone by stone, unable and unwilling to let go and venture outside into a real world, messy and changing every moment.
Intolerance to any critical thought, paying semi-honest 'professional' journalists to spread semi-lies to the outside world to keep up this unrealistic image of things known to everyone living here and willing to open eyes to see to be completely untrue, is the norm and a sadly a simple litmus paper test for the remaining integrity among expats.

Take it or leave it, doubtfully things will change any time soon if ever. 

Tokyo - take it or leave it /Ch.3 Below the surface

Below the surface):

I'm quite sure it's not the city you'd fall in love with. It doesn't have enough charm or allure to captivate or inspire. Probably it's too prosaic, practical, obscure in its dally predictability. Things rarely happen here that would excite your taste or imagination or simply please eyes. It's more of the small obstacle course where you already know the scenario and just keep playing it as a necessary part of living in the city's large stomach.
It weighs on you like a lazy giant that has no purpose.
And it definitely does look better at night from the distance with all the twinkling lights and dark silhouettes that could be anything or anyone you wish.
Anonymity is the key. Dissolving in the vast massive entity and still staying yourself, not trading who you are for the illusive peace, navigating the waters without expectations or obligations.
Writing and performing your own little play surrounded by thousands ever changing sceneries or living beings that coexist but don't cross your path or influence the direction of your thought.
Murmur of the language around gives cushioning to the edges between reality and what you want it to be. 
Curiously, in this city some people jump at the sound of foreign tongue behind them, swiftly turn and roll their eyes out. So much for being the capital, constant, decades long efforts to master English and looming globalization.
The same could be said for foreign looking faces of all kinds that for some reason can not stop exciting all the unnecessary attention.
Curiosity? Maybe....
Being foreign-looking in this city will get you a lot of uninvited attention, curious looks and plain staring. You might not be a celebrity but you'll definitely be scrutinized on a daily basis for your looks, way to dress, generally for being different. 
There's no chance to completely dissolve in a crowd. Attention comes in various forms, from innocent child-like curiosity, to ogling, to hostile glares making you self-conscious or oblivious, whatever you may choose as a defense mechanism depending how long you've stayed here. 
At times people will get comfy to observe you on transport from far corners and it won't matter if you look back trying to stair them away. It doesn't matter what you do, really. Everything will be written off by one concept - foreigner.  Being a foreigner of course gives you a carte blanche.

The feeling of being constantly watched from various angles is persistent and disturbing but that's another facet of the city that refuses to grow up.

Tokyo - take it or leave it/ Ch.2 Size matters


Size matters):

First of all, Tokyo is huge, densely populated, impossibly crowded at any time of the day and strangely devoid of character. The giant conglomerate of buildings, trains, shops and people.
There are few historical patches of course but they're like an oasis lost in a vastness of a concrete jungle. 
Enormous ants nest that doesn't sleep but consumes everything in large quantities: food, people, character, years, you name it.
Weird fascination with skyscraper 'architecture' is only an indication of being from out of town. In any case, those will be scraped away in 10-20years to accommodate newer versions. That's another thing about this city - nothing ever stays the same. Buildings rise and fall, shops open and close, train stations are built and rebuilt with insane frequency that's hard to follow. It feels like a giant self-rearranging mechanism is always in motion.
Coming to the same corner of the city after few years of absence may leave you wondering if you've ever been here before.
Nothing is permanent, absolutely nothing. Except for ever increasing number of citizens. They seem to multiply progressively contradicting all the data about falling population rate. 
Things are built in most incredible places, squeezed in between various loosely shaped structures to accommodate whatever space is available.
You need to find another definition for the word 'space'. All buildings: offices, shops, restaurants, private houses are crammed together leaving almost no space between them. Natural light will find it hard to get to these corners even on a bright like a passing comet summer day. That explains the fact that a lot of windows are just blind opaque glass. Just imagine rooms without any natural light. Bluish fluorescent lights replace it with depressing reminder of a lab or morgue throwing ghostly shadows on faces. 
There's constant rush at all hours of the day. Standing on the train platform at 5am surrounded by quiet, half-asleep early morning crowd makes you wonder what drives people to do that even on weekends...
Close proximity is exhausting.
Personal space concept hasn't been invented yet. It's so easy to develop claustrophobia by just looking at streets or rush hour trains.
Grim and drowsy morning crowd gives way to rushing, alcohol lubricated evening commuters. It's getting louder and hotter and it'd be prudent not to comment on various odors, as apparently this city people are fresh-air phobic to the extreme. Try opening windows on trains or in offices and you'll be met with horror looks, like you've just broken all the commandments in one try.
The motto of Tokyo is: Be cold when it's cold and hot when it's hot. Fresh air is irrelevant.
Any question, surprise, shock, is rebuffed with the only possible explanation - 'tradition' - that covers all the territory. Meanwhile, people professing 'traditional values' mostly have very little grasp on what it actually is. But it serves it's purpose - to retort without any  meaningful consideration.
Streets of this city are almost identical, so looking for landmarks will prove a seriously challenging task. City is navigated from under via elaborate network of corridors connecting everything to anything. 
You could get in any building from any level from B1,2,3,4 to street level. Actually, you can never be completely sure what floor you are on. Mystifying reality is that buildings are accessed from various sides, levels or entrances. 
With time you learn to navigate this elaborate maze with the certainty of a city rat without any need for maps or directions. The true meaning of 'rat race' is right here for you to experience in its full glory.

You try to hide away in suburbs and it's nice at the beginning with all the green and horizon you can finally see but then the crowds start to follow you, more buildings, shops, and ever increasing number of people that take away your space inch by inch with the noisy determination of busy ants on a spring day.

Tokyo - take it or leave it /Prologue


I don't know if Tokyo is worth writing about or not but at some point there's a need to get it out of your system. It stands there - pompous giant without much personality, unable to intimidate but capable of making your everyday miserably annoying and yet somewhat comfy to live. 
Big city people are strange tribe taking their dwellings in stride, day by day, with the constant desire to escape that hardly ever materializes. 
Crammed, noisy existence is balanced with lazy comfort and relative safety. 
You learn to trade open green spaces for opportunities it presents and chance to be anonymous in the sea of people. You don't have to know or care for anyone if you so choose. Serious relationships are hard to sustain as nobody has any time to spare, unless of course you play for the team of numerous housewives or retired.
Things are mostly kept at a distance that only you yourself decide on. 
It's good and bad of course. Ask yourself a simple question: if you picked up a phone now, who would you call? Despite the immediate family or workplace.
For all the high tech making almost anything possible it's not an easy answer. 
People are swamped with busy schedules and live on different sides of the city, preoccupied with work and family hustle, constantly short of sleep and permanently tired.
Look at Tokyo face in the morning. It's a grey view of people half or deep asleep, somber and passive, devoid of any wish but get to the seat and sleep some more. 
Some sleep with their heads up and mouths open. It's hard to resist dropping something in accidentally or on purpose, just for fun.
But then again, Tokyo isn't famous for its sense of humor. It won't be understood or accepted. This inevitably adds so much more stress to everyday existence. People unable to laugh at themselves, cautiously suspicious of others intentions. 
At times you'd come across people who offer help or assistance to lost soles in the vastness of metropolitan public places but most of those had experience living outside the country and understand how it might feel. Never bet on the chance people will be helpful here. It's all in your luck in each given day. Most shy away from any real contact sighting lack of language skills, others are simply indifferent (you might as well be an alien from another planet), some could be even hostile and nasty for no apparent reason than (that) you are from the different world.
It wouldn't matter if you have lived here decades and reasonably speak the language. Outsiders looking for the 'warmth and closeness' of the community will hardly ever find what they're looking for.

Ironically, Tokyo is probably one of the strangest capital cities, the most resembling countryside communities weaved into the one giant patchwork, interspersed with rice paddies and small farms right next to modern condos.
Comparing it to London, Paris or Prague would be futile.
First, there is no center to this city the way it's perceived in Europe. Ask several people about it and they will give you all sorts of answers depending where they like to go. Each area or town has different local jurisdiction, and people tend to identify with the immediate place they inhabit. A little segment where their house is, the part of town they work in and places they go shopping to or hang out with friends. The rest is mostly non-existent to them. You get this bizarre feeling that people are deliberately isolating themselves cutting off all they deem redundant. 

Another thing, everything is in the mix here: residential areas are interspersed with businesses, stores, shops, railways and highways. There's virtually no demarcation between them. Today you live in a green residential area and tomorrow it'd start to turn into a fast growing concrete mini-jungle, reminiscent of the 'architectural efforts' of any other 'developed' place in the city.