My Early Days as a Japanophile
The overambitious Japanese Alps compensated for the underwhelming train. The alps were unexpected, impressive snowy ridges splitting the blue sky like albino sailfish arching high into the sky, attached to Hemmingway’s heavenly hook. Bullet trains, however, were expected. Everywhere and on time, ripping me from sushi place to whale farm in ninja time, and always under the watchful gaze of old Mount Fuji. Instead, I had a glorified subway cart and an alpine vista that better belonged in Zermatt.
In Japan I just wanted to do everything Japanese. I wanted Hello Kitty and Harajuku girls. I refused western food and drank what they drank even when it repulsed me. I was on a hell-bent mission to tick off stereotypes, to see Mount Fuji, to eat raw fish, to bow at businessmen, but here I was faced with the impressive and unexpected revelation that the mountains in Japan imitated the established greats, and that you couldn’t see Mount Fuji from everywhere (I saw it on my flight in, part of it on a hike just outside of Tokyo, and later on this very same day on a different train, but still!), and that there was a proliferation of European restaurants in Tokyo. Resigned, I slumped into my seat and let the Swiss-style peaks overwhelm me – millennia of natural forces hadn’t been able to right this audacious wrong, what chance did I have?
Around me, the Japanese either napped or embarked on epic adventures within their phones. It seemed Japanese people on public transport were usually undertaking one of these pastimes, although the sleeping didn’t end on the metro. On my first night in Tokyo, I was surprised to step over a well-dressed businessman slumped on the footpath outside a ramen den, the first of many incidences of public snoozing I’d witness all over Japan. The Japanese are prodigious nappers, sure, but their public snoozing isn’t merely tolerated – it’s seen as something to be proud of, a reward for working yourself to the point where you can no longer stay conscious. The whole of Japan seemed to be participating in a nationwide who-can-work-the-hardest competition, and the preliminary prize was a tactical nap.
On weeknights in izakayas the salarymen, Japan’s corporate minion class, would sit and down beer and whisky and beer and whisky mixes until they could no longer stand. Izakayas are drinking establishments that serve food to assist the drinking, where the rambunctious post-work atmosphere is infectious; the atmosphere decorated with serious discussions punctuated by shrill laughter, the incessant clicking of chopsticks, cigarette smoke and incomparably polite service. Most nights, we would park up alongside the salarymen and follow their cues, desperate to do it however they did it, which, in the absence of English menus, it didn’t seem like too bad a plan. In one izakaya, I was prompted to give myself prostate cancer by a pissoir computer game that rewarded me with increasingly kooky manga graphics the more I pissed. By the end of the night, I was holding in my pee until I was incapacitated with internal flooding in a foolhardy attempt to top the one-litre mark, falling just short at 980ml (I was rewarded with a bizarre graphic of Mount Fuji erupting meteorites, watched by an angry samurai and two bunnies slamming pestles into a mortar).
The salarymen, and within that term I include salaywomen, devote their entire lives to the one corporation, very rarely jumping ship for greener pastures or safer seas. While in Japan, I read reports that fewer and fewer Japanese salarymen are getting married, or at least staving off making a love commitment until they’re on a corporate rung that won’t be weakened by beginning a family. As a result, the birth rate in Japan is declining at the same rate that affection hotels, hug prostitutes, boyfriend experiences and suicides are increasing. In the izakayas, females would rarely accompany the male salarymen, and near our apartment there was a proliferation of by-the-hour “love hotels” that were frequented at all hours of the day by middle-aged to older men.
Dedication to the corporation doesn’t necessarily require one to stifle their creativity. Throughout my time in Japan I found them to be as individual in their kookiness as they were homogenous in their dedication to their jobs. Across Tokyo’s public spaces, Japanese people would scream their individuality to the world – trumpeters spitting noise into the autumn air, off-key chanteuses stepping out of time to choreographed dance routines – all attended by audiences who seemed to appreciate, if not the performance, the notion that these bursts of creativity might placate the individual so that when it’s time to work they’re not preoccupied by their dreams. The corporation always wins.
Being in Japan, a country that emulates the future as we saw it in the ’60s, one can’t help but wonder what the world would have been like had the bombs not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war went the other way. Yes, the wartime Japanese were nothing to view with nostalgia, and I don’t want to lament their defeat, but it seems to me like the Japanese system is better than the system proliferated around the world by the Americans; corporate obedience drives progress at a much faster rate than the falsehood of boundless individual potential. Would not society be further along the path if we were more influenced by the Japanese than we are the Americans? A work ethic that is never questioned, a diet that extends—not ends—your life. Popular media devoted to capturing anything but reality.
Not to mention a total absence of crime, a culture of respect, a reverence for one’s elders and ancestors, the world’s best cartoons and video games, the propensity to age slowly and well… One’s got to think that, stereotypes only sometimes withstanding, that the Japanese have it worked out, Alps and all…
Cover by Ricky Thakrar; selfies by Gravy