Tokyo is a city that works, despite a population of 39 million, the throngs in the subway, the malls, the markets. There are so many people, people who sit silently on the subway, who move quietly through the streets, who rarely raise a voice. Listen and the loudest thing you’ll hear is an electronic chirp in the the underground, or the consoling bleeps at a crossing.
In Shinjuku, where we stayed, three and a half million people go through the station every day. That’s the combined population of Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Bristol and Glasgow. Every day. And they move so quietly, almost serenely. And the trains arrive and depart on time. Exactly on time. Tokyo works. Which cities in the UK work so well?
Millions of people, a river of humanity, flow through, so Shinjuku station has become a city in itself, a bright, infinite warren of shops, cafes and bars. It goes on an on forever, as far as the eye can see in every direction.
We debated how to get from the airport to our hotel. The options were monorail, overground, subway, bus or taxi. We chose bus, as it meant we would see the city as we covered those twenty miles.
But as soon as the bus left the airport it entered a tunnel, and, as it turned out, the third longest road tunnel in the world, eleven miles long. When we emerged we had seen nothing of the city, we felt like moles, blinking into the light.
And what light! Light everywhere…buzzing swirling light. On the Shinjuku city streets there was something else. The quiet. There were thousands of people on the but so little noise. The Japanese are so quiet.
And the roads too, at least those at ground level, were uncongested, largely, I think, because traffic goes underground and, as we looked up, overground. The city sky is criss-crossed with overpasses, with roads and monorail. Think Bladerunner. The sky full of scribble, a concrete action painting.
Tokyo’s tunnels and malls, its subways and monorails, these keep the streets quiet. People are respectful of each other, there is a distinct and overt awareness that to be noisy is antisocial, discourteous. There is almost no litter, and weirdly, few litter bins. On two occasions when I was looking for a bin someone appeared to take my litter from me, and with a polite bow, whisked it away.
Litter and litter bins, subways, malls, traffic, it’s all hidden away. I’d like to draw a parallel with their toilets, nearly every one we saw, whether in hotels or small bars, had a control panel to activate squirts or, in some cases, sound effects.
The sound effects are there, I assume, to mask the noise of your functions.
Tokyo is a a city of masks, of hiding, of partition.
Two forms of traditional Japanese theatre, Noh and Kabuki, use masks. Replica masks are on sale everywhere. And the Japanese, too, wear masks. They wore masks before the pandemic, and they wear masks now, on the subway, in the street. We had to wear masks on the 14 hour flight.
The city is quiet, but so is the subway, where talking on phones, for example, is frowned upon. There’s less visual noise underground, too, far fewer adverts, and far more useful information than on, for example, the London underground. It is visually quieter.
Every person with whom we had any exchange was incredibly helpful, courteous, polite. We were shown kindness again and again. We had a few interactions with authority, at customs, on the subway, on the tram – and each time received smiles, reassurance.
We used Shinjuku station regularly and never got close to understanding it. The station is on five levels and each level is vast. Radiating from the station underground are six miles of shopping malls. Sometimes we would emerge just across the road, other times we would find a huge walkway which would take us very close to our hotel. Think of an underpass the size of a street, brightly lit, clean and usually full of people, full of shops. Multiply it that by ten. And then imagine it bright, clean and almost silent.
Silent except for the weird electronic bleeps, softly alluring snoring sounds, some like birdsong, on subway stations (I’m sure one was a cuckoo) and above ground, there are the cute noises emitted when it was safe, at last, to cross the road.
Every underground line has its own jingle, a sound played to warn you the doors are closing. (One line in Tokyo had the theme from ‘The Third Man’ as its jingle.)
How does a city of this size, with so many people, feed itself? One thing I’d read was how few farmed animals there are in Japan – meat eating was banned for 1200 years (until around 1872) – but meat consumption has accelearted in the last hundred years. Naively I thought we would see sushi restaurants everywhere, but there were just as many restaurants offering steaks. Burger King and MacDonalds are all over Tokyo. We were offered shark cartilidge, innards stew, horsemeat sashimi, diaphragm, then there were tuna eyes the size of tennis balls, one vendor proudly picked up his restaurant’s menu and pointed to a section written in English, to a dish I still think about now: squid guts. We’re vegetarians, and although these offerings may revolt British tastes, I applaud the Japanese omnivores for their steadfast resolution to eat everything. Most of this stuff is in burgers, anyway.
We saw several MacDonalds and Burger Kings. There are Starbucks everywhere, too, even Costa, but these are often in beautiful buildings, as if the Japanese authorities squeeze the US corporations to succumb to a Japanese aesthetic.
There is no obvious sense of any concern about climate change. Even if meat consumption is everywhere – I was surprised to see cheese – and this is a country obsessed with plastic, everything is in plastic.
I am aware of a charge of hypocrisy here – after all a 14 hour return flight from the UK to Japan emits a huge amount of carbon. I am vegetarian, almost a vegan, I try to live ethically. I’ve been aware of climate change for a least 30 years – it’s one of the reasons I gave up meat. I have taken very few flights in that time. On the few occasions I took my children abroad, we flew once, then travelled by ferry and train. I realise this is expensive, and yes, I am fortunate. Heathrow to Tokyo was non-stop, and as such is more fuel efficient than covering the same distance in short haul flights.
I am aware of the dangers of criticising others, especially another cultures, for their huge consumption, for their apparent disregard for the climate crisis, when I have just taken a long, carbon emitting flight.
But I’m going to make a few observations anyway – at many temples we had to put on a mask, take off our shoes and put them in to a plastic carrier bag taken from a dispenser in the temple wall. And in front of every department store is a machine for wrapping wet umbrellas in a plastic sheath. But is there somewhere to deposit these plastic bags? No, you take them home.
Food in stores is wrapped in layers and layers of plastic, capsule toys come in spheres of blue plastic, books, magazines, sheathed so that when you open them they feel untouched by human hands. One of the most bizarre things I saw: a single, large strawberry in a plastic dome: 4,000 yen, about £25.
Plastics, masks, subways, shopping malls, road tunnels, they keep things partitioned, hidden, silent, quiet. And consider the traditional Japanese house, the paper walls, these serve no purpose other than to separate, divide, hide.
Japan is an island with a language no one else in the world speaks and uses a written script that is an amalgamation of at least three systems. It is a country and a culture which is proud, independent and isolated. And yet there is little overt patriotism. We saw very few Japanese flags. I recall seeing only one.
The Japanese writing system uses logographic and syllabic systems. The logograms are single characters that represent a word. Japanese children have to learn somewhere in the region of two thousand logograms. And then there’s the syllabic system. And yet the Japanese seem to be in awe of America, and of the English language. Many shops have English signs over the door, many without any Japanese. A man from Osaka, one of the very few we met who spoke English, told us that the Japanese think the English language is cool, even if most don’t understand it. So you get shop names like ‘Snobbish Babies’, ‘Springy Clothes’ and ‘Fashion Leg Shop’.
And then there were the road crossings. Yes, Shibuya crossing is the busiest in the world, some estimates suggest up to 3,000 people cross it at any one time. We crossed it, and couldn’t help but feel everyone else there was crossing it because it was such a famous crossing. Cross over, cross back. But Tokyo has a million crossings with a million red and green figures, most of them with hats. I liked their little hats. I don’t think I saw one person wearing that hat. It looked like a straw boater.
But if the red hatted figure is illuminated, you do not cross. You do not cross even if the road is only the width of a table, you do not cross if there is no traffic as far as the eye can see. You wait. You wait just as you waited at the junction ten metres back, and as you will probably wait at the next one. And as there are many crossings it will take you twenty years to get to the end of the street.
Just obey the rules, regardless of whether they make any sense. I got so frustrated with waiting at a red man when the road was clear that I began documenting the crossings. I have about two hundred photos of these places. Waiting, waiting,waiting.
You do not cross and you do not get cross. We witnessed only one argument, a passenger arguing with a coach driver. And he was screaming and raging. You do not cross and you do not get cross. But when you do, you lose it. You completely lose it. I have a theory about this, I call it all or nothing. The Japanese are all or nothing. I’ll explore this in my next podcast on Kyoto.
We walked an average of eight miles a day. From Shinjuku to Harajuku, then on to Shibuya. From Ginza to Tsukiji fish Market to Shimbashi. We walked and waited at crossings, we walked and marvelled at the cleanliness, this litter free world. We realised even the cars are clean, we saw only one grubby van, and that was just slightly dusty.
We walked and when we were lost someone popped up to show us the way, even if they had no English, they would show kindness and patience and try and point us in the right direction.
These podcasts are about these weird isles, not those weird isles, but after spending time in Japan I have become more aware of some very British idiosyncrasies.
Compared to Japan the UK is raucous, racially and culturally diverse, iconoclastic, more creative and maybe, carefree. And without doubt compared to Japan, the UK is a fucking shambles.
You can’t leave Tokyo without the sense that they’ve got so much right, and when they look at us, in the UK, they must think us dirty, noisy, rude, choatic, maverick, anarchic. But they must also sense that maybe we’re more cynical of big brands, of capitalism, perhaps, less trusting, more open, more global. And we’re certainly not so intimidated by peer pressure, nor so repressed.
But maybe many of us outside of Japan wear metaphorical masks, just a little. In the UK there is tendency towards politeness, towards the same suppressed rage.
But like the UK, Japan is an island that sits off a vast continent. Unlike the UK, though, its language is not spoken or written by much of the rest of the world. And in this sense Japan is alone, perhaps cut off, and this, though, may be its strength.
Even to those who have spent theirlives studying Japan and the Japanese, it will never be understood, never grasped. And this, perhaps,is its allure. To outsiders it will remain aloof, a parallel universe, a blank canvas – a country of infinite complexity and endless dreams