September 25, 2015

An Imaginary Japan

I wanted to find a place like the places where music can sometimes bring me, inside of my mind when my eyes are closed. The feeling of far away places, science fictions, imaginary worlds: the feeling of them can be triggered from anywhere. Places are as imaginary as the mind that imagines them. But the mind really does exist to all the imaginary things that rely on it. As I rely on the places that live only in moments of some music, only as shadowlands born upon a unique progression of harmonic waves. I can be underneath this celestial ocean, floating inside of it, as it, myself nowhere to be found. If only through that moment, through an emotion, through a nameless feeling we are nowhere and we are free. It can be more beautiful than any moment in life. And so in my mind was a place I imagined as Japan.

I have always known an imaginary Japan: in my mind it's been a constant fascination. In this world there are robots who may lead humanity to compassion, an epic code of honor of Samurais, acrobatic ninjas with the ability to collapse empires, there are zen koans introducing the seeker to the mystery, Haikus born of the human contradiction of seeing a face that is not you in the mirror, kimonoed shadow figures alive behind paper walls, virtual realities of Nintendo and Atari's pixelated dreamscapes, Hanami: an experience of raining petals pouring down like pachinko balls falling as generations of genes shuffling through neighborhoods of bodies, a formless form, Ikebana: the beautiful metaphysical severed stem flower arrangement, which looks beyond the grave out of our own dead eyes into an eternal form, the beautiful metaphysical gardens that have grown there. The imaginary world of an outsider's mind where nothing is the real place he or she experiences, the human animal exists not in reality: this wandering through a Japan is anything but a true Japan. But what is truth, anyway? Where does it grow?

The sights and sounds of traveling to faraway places in general, at least for me, has been lost upon the insanity of my own mind. In the case of Japan, however, my imagination had failed to prepare me for what I found in Tokyo.




My second night in Tokyo three policeman stopped me in the street. They searched me. This was on a side street in Shibuya, near the largest pedestrian crosswalk in the world. They made me put all of my belongings into a mesh bag. They slowly examined each item, and the contents of my wallet. Being searched by the police is a normal occurrence for inner-city non-white Americans. As a non-inner-city, white American, this was a small taste for me of what it's like to be the victim of a paranoid system. My dream of Japan suddenly shuttered to the reality of being a visitor in a somewhat closed and xenophobic society. “Welcome to Tokyo,” I said, as they allowed me to leave. They laughed.

I sat on the Tokyo subway the next day as the seats filled up all around me with Japanese people going about their days. The space inside this train was silence as the train car moved on, everyone staring at phones, total obedience to the calm. No one looking at anyone's face. There were several long periods of my long rides where the only free seats in the train car could be found on either side of me, at the same time people would stand huddled in the aisle, looking down or away from me. I felt for a moment like I was a character from that episode of the Twilight Zone, To See the Invisible Man, where the narrator could easily have been describing riding the subway as a foreigner in Japan: "It's a world much like our own, yet much unlike it. A twisted mirror of reality, in which a man can find himself cast out, made invisible by public acclamation, belonging no longer to society, but only to the gray reaches...of the Twilight Zone."

I went to Akihabara, the "electronic town." I was hopefully expecting some sort of cyberpunk, blade runner, ghost in the shell mindscape. There were nice small robots there, but nothing as Robotech or neon as I had hoped. The electronics sold in the Western hemisphere surprisingly seem more cutting edge. Tokyo’s once beacon to future technology seemed to have devolved into a proliferation of maid cafes, where hordes of what looked like preteen girls walk the street in anime inspired french maid outfits, like prostitutes, soliciting visits to their cafes, where they will perform their maiding ritual. The high-rise electronics shops which still barely dominate the area are riddled by these cafes, as well as porn shops, and pachinko gambling. One can only imagine a once thriving electronics Mecca there now. Maybe it never was there?

You can be walking through an electronics building, riding escalators, and the next moment be striding through a porn shop with panty vending machines on your way to the next level. What’s most concerning about these shops, besides the 14 year old boys smoking at the arcades around them, is the mixture of anime cartoons depicting young girls in a sexual way displayed alongside porn-like magazines with girls on the cover of questionable age. Further troubling is that this is not confined to lost corners of electronics stores, but is likewise openly displayed in every 711 convenience store in Tokyo, where young and old men alike can be found browsing the material at all hours. For possibly the most modern society in Asia, Japan seems to have a not-so-secret problem with a wide-scale interest in sexually fetishizing underage (cartoon versions of) girls.

One can only imagine the type of effect this might have on the women and girls there, especially when men can be seen openly leering at their periodicals even as they ride the subway trains, surrounded by children who see these men looking at sexualized cartoon versions of children.

Not surprisingly, Tokyo, like New Delhi, has a separate subway car for women only. But more surprising, I didn’t see many women chose to use it. What I did see were many women and girls around town dressing up like anime, or manga characters: the living embodiment of Japanese male society's fetish. In Japan, this style is called Kawaii, or cute.

A few days later I went to a Tokyo Denny’s; but other than the Denny’s logo, and a smoking section inside, this Denny’s had no resemblance to its namesake, (the American) Denny’s. The waitress looked at me and gave me a menu when I sat down and that was the last time she looked at me. A Japanese couple came in, sat next to me, got menus, minutes later the waitress took their order. I waved at the waitress. She ignored me. 10 minutes after another Japanese couple came in, sat on the other side of me, got menus, minutes later the waitress took their order. I waved at the waitress. She ignored me. About 10 minutes after that another Japanese couple came in, sat across from me, got menus, minutes later the waitress took their order. You get the point. It felt almost surreal to be ignored not only on the subway, but also in a restaurant; especially at a Denny’s, a place I had practically grown up in on the other side of the sea. I waved at the waitress again. She ignored me again. I left.

Later I went up to a girl on the street to ask for directions. She was staring out into space. As her head turned towards me she let out a barking yell of terror and jumped back a few feet before attempting to compose herself, as much as a terrified and shivering girl can. I said “is there an ATM around.” She desperately pointed for me to go down the street as she backed away. I looked at my reflection in a store window to make sure I wasn't frightening looking. No more than normally.

During my stay, I spent some nights in a capsule hotel because I was curious what it would be like to sleep in a uniquely Japanese futuristic coffin. When you enter the hotel you leave your shoes. You must wear slippers when walking around inside. Outside of the bathrooms on each floor are more slippers, bathroom slippers, that you wear when using the toilet, the toilet with a heated seat that plays music to mask the sounds and shame of human nature. I made the mistake of forgetting to take off my bathroom slippers when I left the toilet. The bathroom slippers looked almost identical to the other slippers, except for the fact that they have the word toilet written on them in big black sharpie marker lettering. I wore those bathroom slippers all over the hotel and down to the front door of the hotel, where I took them off, noticing for the first time what I had done. Not wanting to go through the whole routine again, I placed them with the other slippers by the front door, put my shoes on, and left. When I got back to the hotel that night, I took my shoes off at the front door, changed into a pair of regular hotel slippers, and took the elevator up to my capsule. To my surprise, on the floor in front of the entry to my capsule were the toilet slippers. Apparently, someone had viewed the hotel video footage to determine who had worn toilet slippers to the front door. Apparently someone took the time to do this, so that they could communicate to me, in the most passive-aggressive way possible (other than by leaving the bathroom slippers on my bed, or pillow), that they knew what I had done. If I was to be ignored on the subways, the streets, and the restaurants, then why should the ill will of a hotel be expressed in a direct manner either?

The next day I walked to the Tokyo Skytree building, the second tallest building in the world, after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. On the way, some old Japanese people kindly invited me in off the sidewalk to witness a Buddhist ceremony. They were very convincing and welcoming, and I was so taken off guard by Japanese people actually acknowledging my existence, and even wanting to speak with me, that against my better judgment I went along inside with them.

Inside I left my shoes, reluctantly, and followed them into an open temple where chanting was occurring. The room was filled with old people. They ushered me to the front of the room and filed in next to me in seats. I sat there while 5 or 6 just stared at me. After a few minutes they gestured for me to follow and they led me into a small room in the basement. There was one chair in the center of the room facing a small shrine. They told me to sit in the chair and they all begin kneeling on the floor around me. At this point I began to get nervous. I had visions of a hypodermic needle sliding quickly into the back of my neck. I could hear footsteps behind me. They began to blanket me with questions about myself: where am I from, what do I do, why am I here, do I have a religion, and my favorite question: am I alone here. My paranoia began to crawl up my spine at that question. I told them I was meeting my friends in 10 minutes. They had their hands on my shoulders.

"There is only one true Buddha," they said. "Oh?" I replied. "His name is Gohonzon, and all you have to do is chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo to him and your life will be filled with happiness. It is the only way to find happiness," they said. I said, "interesting." They handed me a binder with all the locations of their sects around the world, places I could attend. They told me, "we are not a cult." "I didn't think you were." I said. I began to sweat. "I really need to go," I told them. "My (non-existent) friends are waiting for me." They slowly backed away from me. I left as quickly as I could after giving them a fake email address, at their insistence, and promising to come back with my friends the next day. As I finished walking to the Skytree I felt ridiculous for feeling lucky to be alive, but I did. Maybe it was a good thing that more Japanese people weren't speaking to me. From the top of the building I looked down and imagined the temple of the old people below, a small dot in the distance, inside all those old bodies chanting out loud to a plastic Buddha, praying for happiness at the end of their lives, open to anyone in the world coming to chant beside them, as if the chant would be louder, as if it could be heard. These old people, like crickets chirping at the cooling darkness of an eternal autumn night, looking for the beauty of the fireflies who have long gone, only to be replaced by the vast emptiness there between old age of the light of faraway stars.

At the end of it all, I couldn't help but just feel sorry for the people of Japan. Maybe they do have good reason to be wary of foreigners? Not only did America and the West devastate Japanese life and society over the last 200 years, but Japanese culture seems as if it has since floated into the sea, lost to wander like Fukushima's invisible radiation silently whispering across the waves, the moon a lone observer to the ancient chaos growing through the generations of humanity there, blooming into a ripe nothingness, into a lost and troubling idea in a visitor's imagination. And yet, I will return to Japan again. I will return to its unique strangeness, to the solitude of the foreigner, and to the bizarro world of the tourist, who in my case, "served his sentence of invisibility and learned his lesson well. This time, however, he will wear his invisibility like a shield.... A shield forged in the very heart of the Twilight Zone."

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