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Travel and World Culture   
 Photo: Rachael Lee
 Photo: Rachael Lee

Tokyo, Japan: Behind the Electric Smile
By W.B. Sullivan

The hulking urban mass of Tokyo is swollen with the weight of three day’s rain. An unending procession of buildings lurks above the streets, dark and saturated, indiscriminate against the porridge-tinted color of the late afternoon sky.

Atop and aside the buildings, though, a dizzying array of blinking lights pulsate through the mist hovering in the skyline.  In their brief, insect-like lives these lights are born, mature and die in a day, and yet they represent as constant a facet of life in Tokyo as overcrowded trains and cacophonous pachinko parlors. 

The lights are at once beguiling and maddening. At every turn, down every alley Tokyo pleads with you to notice her, but to the foreigner it is nearly impossible to ascertain the flirtation’s intent. I imagine that this has not changed in preponderance with time, merely through science, turning what was once calling out by candle, into electric, megawatt flame.

The firefly flashes of electricity running into the distance provide a strange levity, but in reality they represent a weight as crushing as Tokyo’s dense physics. They are ever-present reminders of a constant struggle in Japan between the outward appearance of things and their true, inner meaning.

The Japanese call this phenomenon honne (inner feelings) and tatemae (public face, or façade). This juxtaposition describes the struggle by the individual against societal expectations, against the conformism and the sometimes imposed sense of homogenization in Japanese society. It is also central to outsider’s adaptation to life in the island nation’s largest city.

The soul of Tokyo, its honne, is mostly hidden.  The city is a geographic and psychological maze with misleading turns, streets, literally, with no name; sure paths that ultimately lead to dead ends. The assaults on one’s senses are dramatically ubiquitous and unending.

Living in Tokyo therefore demands the ability to process multiple, sometimes severe surface stimuli, while suspending the corresponding need to understand what lies beneath. It is the Japanese practice of nodding and saying yes, when one really means no; it is a sweltering, crowded train filled with utterly silent travelers, eyes closed against the brutal reality of the daily commute; it is walking into a shop, bedecked with English signage, only to find no employee speaks more than two words of the language. One must learn to deal with these various elements of tatemae, and let the honne of Japan find them in its own time. 

These observations can be fleeting to the visitor. Those who spend brief periods of time in Tokyo are understandably intoxicated with the cocktail of mixed surface impressions and stereotypes. Voyeuristic pursuit, driven by whirlwind tours and pre-determined stops on a map, trumps the ability to grasp a deeper understanding of the place. I see it in the eyes of friends and family who’ve come to visit, heard it in their questions; felt it in their cautious optimism that, given the opportunity, they too could live here with ease. But when the newness wears off, and the vast differences between ones’ home and Tokyo are all that remains, the experience can become debilitating.

To be alien in Japan is more than a definition of legal status, tone of skin, or the particular lilt of a foreign accent. Outside the many connotations and certain pejoratives, to be an alien is also to be living in an alien world. As such, one must face Tokyo, and all of Japan for that matter, with the understanding that there will always be an element that is unseen, unknown and unwelcome to foreigners.


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