Walkabout In Tokyo

We leave Tsukiji fish market with no plan, just idling along. After a desultory ramble that ends up at a pay-to-enter park, we decide to walk across town, to the Imperial Palace and to the green space and free park that surrounds the Palace. I’m happy with the destination and with the plan to walk there; up until now we’ve travelled everywhere in Tokyo by underground train, so I’ve yet to have a good walking gawk at the city. We set off, cross-town perambulation.

The first thing of note I see are some recent posters exhorting the citizens of Tokyo on how to behave post-March 11th earthquake:

Stern posters, though they’re tempered by others that are more hopeful and optimistic:

To this flâneur, Tokyo is very clean, extremely safe and is lined with wide, uncluttered pavements. The buildings range from the lowly 7/11 shop to the towering skyscraper and the neatly dressed citizens bustle along with anonymity and reserve; there’s a pervasive mood of calm and order. Of course, this is all I expected and fitting the stereotype, isn’t really that interesting. It’s the unexpected details that were worth travelling for.

For Tokyo may be spotlessly clean and devoid of rubbish, but it is also wholly devoid of bins. Sachiko confirms this, telling me that people always keep hold of their rubbish until they get home; occasionally, a 7/11 will have some bins, but as a rule there are no on-street bins. To the Japanese, that’s just plain normal. No tidy-town committees here.

Also unexpected, in a country famed for its decorum, is the fact that there are no bike lanes anywhere: cyclists just weave and wander the pavements, dodging and avoiding pedestrians like some kind of video game. I’ve already seen how the Japanese conduct themselves on escalators (always keep to the left) and on metro platforms (patiently queue for the train at the exact point where the doors of the train open) so I’m surprised that on the pavements, they can tolerate such anarchy. But they do. Life goes on. So does our walk.

Aside from the cyclists, we also pass many young families pushing prams, groups of older women (oba-chans) and although its Sunday, lots of salarymen. One of the words in Japanese that doesn’t have a direct translation into English is karōshi. It’s seen as a typical Japanese phenomenon and it’s usually translated as ‘death through overwork’. The number one victims of karōshi are the salarymen: endless hours in the office spent stressing over their jobs and one day they simply drop dead from a heart attack or stroke. One of the stereotypical ways for salarymen to relax is to play pachinko. When we pass a pachinko parlour, I’m keen to have a look inside but the girls abandon me, saying they’re fine and that they’ll wait outside.

The noise inside the pachinko parlour is deafening. All the machines blare out indecipherable noise, while at the same time, their lights flash and display movies. The people playing the machines are using innumerable little metal balls to somehow gamble and win. Everyone’s completely immersed in their own game and nobody speaks; to be heard, it would be necessary to shout loudly to win out above the noise. I feel like I’m about to suffer an epileptic fit, so I beat a hasty retreat, exiting the little pachinko parlour of horrors.

Our walkabout continues: we pass an English pub, a building that looks a capsule hotel, lots of ramen restaurants with replica food outside. We pass through districts of skyscrapers…

which the non-Tokyo girls, Sachiko & Yuko gape up at…

Down low, one of the other frequent sights are people wearing face-masks. I associate face-masks exclusively with bird flu or SARS, epidemics that seem to be perennially sweeping across the East. This however, is a completely wrongheaded impression.

Sachiko explains that face-masks are worn for a myriad of reasons: yes, they’re used to prevent one acquiring an infectious airborne disease, but they’re also worn if one is ill and wants to prevent the spread of the disease (a truly selfless thought); during the winter face-masks are worn to keep one’s face warm (a very comfortable sensation apparently) and during early summer, they’re worn to minimize over 90% of pollen inhalation by sufferers of hay-fever. At the moment, it’s hay-fever time and there are indeed many people wearing face-masks. It’s an elegantly simple solution to a problem that in the West often requires taking medication.

Of course, many Westerners would agree with the superior simplicity of face-mask wearing, but would inevitably not wear a face-mask because of something along the lines of “everybody would be looking at me”. The Japanese are genuinely non-self conscious about face-masks: when I hand each of the three girls a face-mask each, they put them on without a bit of fuss.

When it comes to hygiene and such matters, the Japanese are some way ahead of the West. They were using disposable facial tissues for centuries before the West picked up on the habit so who knows, perhaps the West will after some delay follow the East’s lead when it comes to face-masks too.

I chat to the girls about their experience of the March 11th earthquake. Sachiko was at home in Nagano, over 400km from the earthquake epicentre. Her spontaneous response was to lie a whiskey bottle on its side (so it wouldn’t topple over), put an Aran woolly hat on her head and sit on the ground in seiza. When the quake finished after a few minutes, she was uninjured but felt seasick. Yuko was over 700km from the quake (in Sapporo, Hokkaido prefecture) when it struck. She too experienced an extended wobble but she and her home didn’t endure any damage or injury either. Both Sachiko and Yuko spent the rest of the day fielding inquiries for their health from international friends.

Natsumi was in Tokyo and like hundreds of thousands of others, she was travelling on the metro when the earthquake hit. Her train was stopped until the earthquake finished and then everyone had to make their own way home. For many this meant walking through parts of the city they had never known before. Natsumi speaks about the event with great calm and moderation; never exaggerating, she smiles philosophically at the trouble she went through. When I ask her what living in Tokyo is like, she simply says, ‘Harsh’ and laughs.

Natsumi’s calm stoicism echoes the views of the Sudanese woman I met on the flight to Japan. It also reflects a view, widely expressed in the international press, that the Japanese response to the unprecedented natural disaster has been one of heroic calm and fortitude, and that there have been no protests or scuffles anywhere in the country. This was largely true, until Fukushima.

Ever since the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and the duplicitous management of the crisis by the TEPCO power company, there has been increasing frustration with the establishment in Japan. While all foreign residents had the option of retreating to their home countries (and many did flee), tens of thousands of residents in Fukushima province were forcibly evacuated from their own homes and as a result had their lives and livelihoods thrown into turmoil. As the Japanese government became more and more a helpless victim of circumstance, the people began to make demands. When we happen upon a protest on our Tokyo walkabout, we’re not long figuring out what it is for and what it is against.

Before we see anything, we hear a women shouting on a megaphone. When we come upon the source of the noise, we see a line of hundreds of people marching the full length of the street. Although it probably wouldn’t impress the French or the Greeks, this is a serious protest: there are numerous placards (No Nukes, TEPCO Shame On You, We Don’t Want Nuclear Power), a raggle-taggle mix of ages from young to old and a heavy police presence. At every set of traffic lights, the policemen blow their whistles loudly and keep the march segregated into groups so as to minimize the impact on traffic, which continues to flow, albeit at a very slow pace. The speaker on the megaphone repeats over and over, “THINK OF THE CHILDREN, SHUT DOWN NUCLEAR POWER!”

While the message of the protest is clear, we’ve no clue why it’s taking place where it is. We cross the line of the march and walk for one block where we re-encounter the march in a much more vehement and concentrated state.

This is clearly the focal point for the protest and it’s centred on a large grey corporate-looking building, which is completely encircled by a line of police. The building, we guess, must be TEPCO’s HQ. There’s a much larger police presence and down an alley beside the building we see a long line of police, on standby.

The atmosphere is tense, bordering on explosive. We cross the road to the same side as the building and stop to watch the protest for a little bit. While we’re here, a man breaks away from the group of marchers and tries to break through the police cordon to reach the building. There’s a scuffle as three police officers work to restrain and prevent him from getting through. This happens right before our eyes and I’m completely amazed to see such physical argey-bargey in Japan, a country I thought famous for it’s docile and placid citizens. The police succeed in restraining the man but I fail to notice what becomes of him.

We leave the protest behind and after moving on, we see a sign which confirms that the building is TEPCO’s HQ. In a small plot of flowers, is a sign which says: “These flowers were planted by disabled employees of TEPCO. They did it with their heart”. There’s something kind of perverse in the wording of the sign. Sachiko tells me that TEPCO has for a long time been one of the biggest companies in Japan and as a result, it often comes across as arrogant.

After walking not much farther, we pass a theatre where there’s a storm of noise outside. It turns out to be the Takarazuka theatre, a female only theatre and some star must be arriving because crowds of young girls are screaming with excitement and fever as they try to catch a glimpse of their hero. Truly is Tokyo bursting with life on this Sunday evening.

Eventually we leave the clamour and reach the clearing of the Imperial Palace. It’s a broad open area of well manicured grass and scrubby bushes. We find a nice patch and sit down and relax. Nearby is the Imperial Palace, rendered completely inaccessible to the public by an extensive moat. The Emperor of Japan doesn’t have any power, but as a figure-head and symbol of the state, he has much importance.

According to the arch-traditionalists, the royal family in Japan is the longest reigning imperial dynasty in history with according to legend, an original ascent to the throne occurring on February 11th 660B.C. In the long history since that time, the emperor has had many homes: for a long time the seat moved after each succession and over the centuries resided in tents, monasteries and wooden palaces; then came extended durations in Nara and Kyoto until finally in 1869, the Emperor moved to Tokyo.

Before the Emperor moved to Tokyo, most of the ruling power lay with the shogunate general, but in 1867, power was restored to the Emperor. Over the following decades, a fragile and short-lived democracy was born, but by the 1930’s power became increasingly centralized in the Emperor and a small military cabinet. The ultimate conclusion of this process was the Japanese imperialist expansion into Asia, which in 1945 ended in defeat and catastrophe. In the US occupation that followed, General Douglas MacArthur, the man charged with reforming Japan and rebuilding it into a liberal democracy, forced the emperor to personally renounce his divine status over the radio, shocking the citizens of Japan who had never even heard his voice and scarcely comprehended his peculiar vocabulary. However MacArthur decided the emperor had symbolic importance and so shouldn’t be made resign, or, unlike all the Imperial Generals, be required to stand trial. Emperor Hirohito remained on until his death in 1989.

According to the Rough Guide, near the Imperial Palace is a shrine called Yasukuni-jinja. Dedicated to all who died fighting for the Emperor in Japan since 1869, the shrine is officially dedicated to peace but it continues to have a controversial existence; amongst other things, it has become a lighting rod for ultra right wing nationalists who lament the emperor’s fallen status and who want to restore his divine status and sovereign right to wage war. This all sounds interesting and worth a visit, but we’re too tired to go looking for the shrine. Instead, we leave the nightmare of history behind us and hang out in the park taking silly pictures:

After a time, we leave the park and walk to the nearest metro. Our walkabout ends with a goodbye to Natsumi and a train to Shinjuku, where we’ll meet Katsuhiro, Yuko’s husband, who has just finished work.

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4 Responses to Walkabout In Tokyo

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