Diana asked me on facebook the other day what is so great about Japan. She said that she had never had any desire to go there, and requested that I “do tell” what its attractions are for me. I didn’t respond, in part because I didn’t quite know where to begin. My response would not have happily fit into a comment stream, I think; my responses to Japan are so complexly layered, like so much filo, with emotional, sensory, intellectual, and linguistic memories and impressions in between the fine sheets… that any glib or simple explanation would not even begin to do justice to them. I certainly can start, though, with a simple list.
1) Japanese society is an elaborate theatre of manners. Masks and role-playing permeate all facets of life there. You see it in the fervent and efficient way people do their jobs, with precision and ceremony. I am thinking, for example, of the hotel clerks at Hotel Sakura Fleur Aoyama who, when we returned from our adventures on a hot day, made a great show of wiping the outside of our complimentary bottles of mineral water with a clean and perfectly folded white towel. Or the woman at the station somewhere out along the Takasaki line who, as our train left for the next station, bowed in perfect slow motion like a butoh dancer at curtain call. These discrete moments of fastidious performance are more or less endless. In Japan, you don’t need to go to any performances (although, if you have time, you certainly should!) because the whole society is being performed all the time. This might be said of any society, I suppose, but in Japan, the simulacrum really is the message: ukiyo.
“Cosplay” is not actually a new phenomenon. Lolita wear has been around for as long as I remember, in some form or another, although it’s true that it leans a bit more toward the gothic now than it used to. Kids were dressing up and hanging out in Yoyogi-koen back when I first went to Japan in 1988, and presumably long before that as well. It’s just that in recent times, it has become more and more formalized and explicit. Cosplay is Japan, really, whether it’s the colored himo around an obi, a construction worker’s tabi, a stiff salaryman suit, or the bizarrely blonde wigs and coifs of the doll-like Shibuya girls…it’s Hallowe’en all the time in Japan, and that suits me just fine. The details of presentation and performance are paramount, but they aren’t shallow: they are deep signifiers, that say: this is the role I play: this is how I fit in to the machine //or// this is the elaborate way that I cope with having to be in the machine, my (sometimes extreme) reaction to it. Almost no one is slovenly, or “natural” (although sometimes they are faux-natural, like the stylized Japanese hippies) (and except, arguably, children), or tiresome to look at, at least from my perspective. One argument for going there, then, might simply be to behold Japanese people.
2) Design is everywhere. Really: everywhere. On every train strap and t-shirt, every package and envelope, on every bit of signage… I remember feeling this keenly at many moments, but especially in regards to toilets. Everyone knows about the superior technology of the Washlet, how it will clean your nether orifices with warm jets… but even beyond that… I remember going into one of the restrooms inside Ueno station after a gruelingly long train ride back from an onsen in Gunma, and being delighted to find that the restrooms were entirely done in PURPLE, these sort of curving deep purple stalls with faux-wood accents. Charms and fascimiles (such as the plastic food) are ubiquitous. Gary and I were delighted to come upon, just outside of Shibuya station, a whole rack of dangling charms labeled REAL DOG. Each charm featured a miniature, adorable, realistic little dog of a different breed. The existence of this rack of charms was quite a typical thing, quite like the ever-present “gumball machine” style toy dispensers, into which one puts 200 or 300 yen, rotates the handle, only to get, for example, a miniature plastic replica of a traditional demon, or a fluffy toy of a kangaroo rat, or a kewpie doll disguised as Jungle Taitei (known in English as Kimba the white lion)…
3) It’s a cartoon. This point is related to both point #1 and #2. Not only are cartoons everywhere (you really can’t go two minutes without seeing something that is literally a cartoon), but there is something also cartoonish in the exaggerated theatricality of the place. Marianne said she can’t find an entry point for the aesthetic of cuteness that is so key to this cartoonishness. For some reason, perhaps because I was there so long to begin with, or perhaps just because of who I am, I have no difficulty immersing myself in the qrotesquely exaggerated fetishized adorable pathos that the Japanese worship in the forms of big-eyed, large-headed creatures and girls in bright colors and with fluffy textures. Life (see point 1) starts to imitate the cartoon, to become the cartoon. I saw so many hairstyles on boys, in particular, that seemed to have been adopted right from the pages of a manga: hair spiky in one section, perhaps, with another section swooping off to a dramatic angle, exactly as a manga hero’s would.
4) The natural beauty is unparalleled. Lush dramatic mountains, bright clear rushing water, ferny riverbanks, twisted pines, hollyhocks, leaves leaves leaves blossoms blossoms. Maples. Always maples. Spires of cypresses. If this natural beauty feels itself a bit like a stage setting, it is not diminished by that. In the countryside the air is clean and rejuvenating. The sulfur of the water, even the water that comes out of the tap in Tokyo, made my skin feel instantly unusually soft. Thanks to the generous volcanoes for all of this fertility and loveliness. Beautiful straw. Beautiful rice. Beautiful. Beautiful.
5) Maximum sensory stimulation: lights, colors, sounds, smells, clutter, arrangement, designs, tastes (see the post just above this one). I almost feel as if one hasn’t completely lived until one has been at Shibuya crossing at night. It’s actually really a bit too much, especially in Tokyo but outside it, too. I know sort of how to maneuver within the (sometimes very beautiful) welter of confusions. I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who has no experience of Japan to deal with it all… although everyone I had come stay with me when I lived there quite simply… loved it. At the moment, New York in comparison frankly feels to me like a bit of a boring shithole, but then, I’m in reverse culture shock mode, I guess.
I’m not sure if all this even begins to answer Diana’s question. I can’t think of anyplace else that so interestingly juxtaposes the new, even the futuristic, with the ancient, that offers such a range of sensory experience, whose natural beauty is so exquisite and whose cities are so overwhelmingly absorbing. I don’t really know why one would go anyplace else, I’m tempted to say, except that I do know: each place proffers its own novelty. But for me, Japan never bores, and never did (although it sometimes infuriated) even in the long time that I lived there. Gary and I have decided to go back at the very least every three years, and, trust me: I’m counting the days.