An Expat in Tokyo
On the Toyoko Line heading towards Jiyūgaoka, the pretentiousness took me like a gust of wind—dressed at the height of fashion, men with hypnotizing moiré silk ascots and women in delicate tulle maxi-skirts. There was something familiar about their dispositions, reminiscent of the toffee-nosed, hauteur caste of Parisians you would find on the A Line heading towards Châtelet-les-Halles. I felt the same shock as I felt in Paris too; sharp looks were a reminder that I did not belong. Jiyūgaoka was far more western than any place I’ve visited in Tokyo—and this is not at all what I had expected.
My acquaintance with Japanese literature began at infancy, with my grandfather, begrudgingly drafted into World War 2—a veteran with the true heart of an artist. He soothed me with beautiful symphonies of Heian-era poems, and the melodic cacophony of the more cynical works of the 20th century. These had established a beautiful time capsule in my mind, my imagination sparkling, conjuring images of my inevitable life in Tokyo—only to be rebuffed by the modernity awash with the cyberpunk culture of Shinjuku and Shibuya, the hyper-europhilia of Jiyūgaoka and the retro-American nostalgia of Shimokitazawa.
I think of the writers of olde—Natsume Soseki, Fumiko Enchi, and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa—and what would they see in this Tokyo, one sans distinction from an ashen concrete desert protruding with hunks of glass and steel so prevalent in the United States. What would be thought of the pop culture currently in vogue: manga, anime, and video games blotched on billboards and buildings along the streets of Akihabara.
I also think of contemporary writers, such as Sayaka Murata, a writer of dystopian worlds that appeal all too well to the Japanese population. Her work contains criticism of the structures of a rigid society with a noticeably skewed work–life balance. They also exhibit horrific and oftentimes obscene clairvoyance into an unpleasant future, petrifying readers with her uncanny, desensitized characters. What would be her view of the city?
From my position as a gaijin, my role in this discussion of culture falls short. However, despite this physical distance in youth, I felt so close to these writers. I felt them as secondary guardians, instructing important lessons that would rear me for the future. I imagined my move to Japan as an odyssey into my most beloved books.
In the eye of a hurricane of culture shock, the peace and quiet that inspire my reverie are in ways restorative. However, it comes the time to get off that train.
Since its founding, Culture Day (Bunka no Hi) has been intended to promote cultural awareness through the arts, literature, and academia. The holiday, occurring annually on November 3, is also marked by parades and festivities across Japan. This year, GoConnect announces its Culture Day Special to reflect on Japan’s growth, sparked during the Meiji Restoration, and ending at modern times, through the eyes of an expat, as well as through the authors of the 20th century.
Before there was a Culture Day, there was Meiji-setsu, a holiday to commemorate the passing of Emperor Meiji. Appropriately, in the next installment, we will discuss Natsume Soseki, an author recognized for his critiques and enchantment with the Meiji Restoration and the consequent modernization and westernization of Japan.
Jake Benjamin Roiter