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Japan’s Floating Art Museum


After I had been in Tokyo for a night and a day my brain finally let its guard down to the sensual battery of lights and sounds that comprises this most modern of cities.

It was not the most opportune moment for this to happen.

I had just ascended the stairs of the Shibuya subway station with two armfuls of purchases when twenty-four hours worth of bright, blinking colored lights, piped train melodies, hidden haiku poems, pinging pachinko parlors, anime animal sales pitches and the sheer mass of people all washed over me at once, and I literally collapsed from sensory overload. Yes, fell down, right there at the top of the subway stairs. I was lucky I didn’t tumble down them.

Drunk? Moi?

A man nearby, who must have assumed I was drunk, smiled widely and helped me back on my feet. In Tokyo it’s OK to be drunk. So I suppose it is also OK to be intoxicated with the visual and audile urban splendor that greets the first time visitor here.

It occurred to me later, after I had returned to the states, that perhaps this had served to clear my mind to properly understand this city. Being where I was, I translated my experience in Japanese Buddhist terms: extremes were pushed, in this case sensory ones, in order to create an empty space that allowed a hidden event to occur.

For me that event was that I now felt, however fleetingly, that I was part of a huge living, art museum that also served as the country’s capital city and economic engine.

Like I had suddenly stepped into the modern equivalent of celebrated 18th century artist Hishikawa Moronobu’s “floating world” of pleasure. Only instead of kabuki actors and erotically painted geishas, these were the sights and sounds of 21st century Tokyo.

I felt intimate with everyone, if in fact with no one in particular. It was a short lived sensation but I enjoyed it while it lasted. Everything was found art: The fellow with a t-shirt that read only “Soul” walking into Senso-Ji Temple, and the red-robed Buddhist monks losing themselves in an Iidabashi video arcade, were too aesthetically perfect not to be deliberate juxtapositions.

The same with the youths at Shibuya, so fantastically decked out: the t-shirt of one boy, matching his girlfriend’s hat, matching his pal’s motorcycle. Girls in orange makeup and platform go-go boots stepping out of bright yellow cabs into a sea of electric signs. Amidst the audacious commercialism, a girl in the window of an Internet café reading a “manga” comic book, wearing a t-shirt that read: “Blank Generation,” summing up the Yaoi creed, so popular with Japanese school girls: no climax, no purpose, no solutions.

The youths here aren’t demanding attention, a positive glance from one another is all the reinforcement they’re looking for: they want to look cool so everybody else looks cool. The Goth girls at Harajuku are a little more desperate in their wedding dresses and vampire duds, but equally a part of the creative mosaic that is modern Tokyo.  

And then there’s the salarymen, those foot soldiers of Japanese commerce, all dressed in the same black suit. To alleviate the monotony they drink too much sake at noodle bars marked with red lanterns and have trysts at campy Love Hotels, which hold little stigma here, but which do have theme rooms: King Arthur, Under the Sea, etc. Then they stumble onto the trains en masse at night and look out longingly at the passing neon city, listening to the soothing melody music at each station, and bow as they talk to their wives or bosses on cell phones.

Then there’s the sad- looking men and women playing pachinko in the omnipresent parlors, where, even when they’re losing, the hypnotic lights, bouncing balls and ping noises can, for better or worse, temporarily bed down any restless longing of which they’re suffering. 

And at Shinto and Buddhist Temples, bright barrels of Sake are offered to the Gods at elaborate golden altars.

In true Dadaist form, the people of Tokyo have even taken monuments of other great cities: the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, and built their own copies. Even the Japanese language was once adopted from the Chinese.

With the distinct exception of the homeless, which are everywhere and yet invisible, almost everything is made to fit in, at least superficially. For example all over town I noticed aluminum and wood statues of raccoons standing upright. I found out later that back when Tokyo was called Edo, the town was overrun with raccoons. So the Buddhists deified them and declared they were guardians of the city’s temples. Thus they became associated with the quest for happiness, and so were no longer considered nuisances, but harbingers of good luck.

Even my little pot, er Buddah, belly was made to fit. One day as I was minding my own business on the subway, the train opened at a stop and I felt a hand rubbing my belly. I looked down just long enough to catch a glimpse of a little older woman pull her hand away and exit the train. For good luck, I suppose. 

Then there are the amazing things the Japanese do with the English language, evident everywhere. They zoom in on slogans and American colloquialisms, eliminate articles of speech, and cobble them together for flash appeal.

“Three Minutes Happiness” is a popular store for youths. “Gas Panic” and “Clap by Clap” are bars. T-shirts are a goldmine of these phrases: “Reach the Summit of Edge”, “Under the Creation I’ll be the First in Line to Buy One”, “Long Time Ago Because Have It Coming” and “Taste Good Mr. Sunnyman” are a few. 

When I ordered some water, this haiku was inscribed on the glass: “Sunstory, A glassful of drops, Each drop is tomorrow’s dream, Sip your dreams by drops.”

All for the common good; and all for ambiance. The atmosphere in Tokyo is so conscious, in fact, that I found myself longing for a tree that hadn’t been manicured, or a neglected alleyway, but they were few and far between. I noticed even the color scheme of a graffiti word that perfectly matched the anime dragons on an adjacent vending machine. 

Some things I heard about Tokyo fell apart when I visited: the streets aren’t as clean as they once were. After the Aum Shinri Kyo cult released nerve gas in the Tokyo subways in 1995, many garbage receptacles were removed out of fear they could hide terrorist weapons.

And you can be too polite: I met an American girl working in Tokyo who had to write a formal letter of apology to a co-worker for thanking her in a staff meeting for something that was part of her job.

But watching the teeming thousands of people, who all seem to be on the sidewalk at the same time, following an efficient pedestrian traffic pattern that causes no conflict is a marvel to behold. I seemed to be only able to understand it after a sake or two.

Visiting in early May, I had a week to spend in Japan, and had planned on just starting out in Tokyo. It wound up taking me a whole week just to see the city. I’ll have to return another time to see Kyoto and climb Mt. Fuji.
 But while the Japanese work so hard to fit everything into their specially tailored world, some things just don’t fit.

An experience I had towards the end of my trip pushed me off Tokyo’s “floating world” and back into one of my own making, and revealed the conflict of modern Japan.

I was walking down Uchibori-dori towards the Imperial Palace when I came across a group of young men in black jogging pants and shirts doing calisthenics and chanting slogans. A man nearby told me they were shouting: “Revere the emperor! Expel the barbarians.”

That’s me they were talking about.

Called Uyoku, these right- wing, xenophobic men drive around in black vans decorated in the style of old Imperial Japan, demanding the country rebuild its military and reclaim the northern islands of the archipelago from Russia, among other issues. Depending upon whom you ask, the Uyoku are a bunch of crackpots or a dangerous extremist group that speak aloud what others are merely thinking. 

As the group of Uyoku men started jogging in a circle, a gaunt man in his 60s who was passing by came up to me and introduced himself.

“We Japanese are shy but we are glad to see you,” he said, walking me away from the chanting Uyoku to a plaza that had a view of the Imperial Palace.

It turned out he had cancer and was walking from one hospital to another. He was retired from a cigarette company, which in the telling triggered him to pull out a cigarette and light it in a display of corporate esprit de corps. I told him that was suicide in his condition and that he should stop. He looked at me, surprised at my concern, and snubbed it out.

I realized that this retired man was part of Japan’s own “Greatest Generation,” I had heard about. Those who built Tokyo from the rubble of World War II into the modern marvel it is today.  

“You and your colleagues built this city,” I said. “It’s an amazing place.”

He was elated at the recognition, and told me that as he has grown older he has become increasingly unhappy with the anti- outsider sentiment that runs through Japanese society, as epitomized by the Uyoku. The country’s distaste for imports, both goods, services and people, was contributing significantly to the nation’s recession, he said. Japan, rated again in 2003 the world’s most expensive city, is now in its fourth straight year of deflation, depleting the country’s wealth. 

Last fall I took an economics class at Princeton University, where they spend endless hours trying to figure out what has gone wrong with the Japanese economy, and the professor had concluded exactly the same as this fellow I was speaking with now.  

Even slow to pick up the Internet, Japan has a long history of shutting itself off from the outside world.

It occurred to me that it would be unwise for me to allow the Uyoku to exclude me from the “floating world” I had been enjoying so much.

So I elected in my mind’s eye of all the fantastic colors, words and sounds of Tokyo, to fit the Uyoku into the mosaic somewhere unimportant, while I would busy myself with the good parts of Tokyo, and believe in a future Japan that included me–if only on a distant American cloud.

 Because the “floating world,” the breathing art museum with the pulsing heartbeat that is modern Tokyo, is too poignant for me to dismiss simply because some would like to revoke my invitation. 

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