Learning from Tokyo
I have been traveling to Tokyo since 1993. It is one of my favorite cities in the world.
“I’m back to Tokyo tonight to refresh my sense of place, check out the post-Bubble city, professionally resharpen that handy Japanese edge. If you believe, as I do, that all cultural change is essentially technology-driven, you pay attention to Japan. There are reasons for that, and they run deep.” – William Gibson, 2001
So wrote William Gibson in Wired magazine back in 2001. The stagflated economy has barely changed, the rest of Asia has boomed madly but, for me, Japanese culture still holds the allure of the future. A future that seamlessly blends what can be done with what has been done. On a bright Spring morning I visit The Meiji Shrine with my friend Sumiko Sato. We had been out the previous evening and were both quiet as we adjusted to the bright warmth of the late morning. The Meiji Shrine acts as though it is a thousand years old, mature woodlands and lakes surround it so that entering the shrine is leaving the city. You go back in time and forward. The current ideal of urban farms and green cities with herbaceous buildings was realized here a hundred years ago. For it is only a hundred years since the shrine was built.
This perfect union of past and future is what makes Tokyo so unique. Tokyo girls stride through the shrine in spike heeled costumes with gangsta boyfriends. Old ladies, bent and wise, hover in sacred places. And a wedding ceremony as old as Japan, costumed as in the middle ages, weaves its way through the throng. This is all in the center of a city in constant change, thrusting now ever higher, creating a fresh clean version of the modern metropolis. This in a country where the snow in the city stays white on the ground and the most popular car is the Prius.
The Japanese had this modern world thrust upon them yet somehow revealed their innate ability to not only recover but to transform. Maybe it is earthquake culture? A constant readiness to rebuild and, in so doing, improve on what went before. Maybe it is the fact that after two centuries of isolation there remains a profound thirst for the outside with all its weirdness. Maybe it is the lack of religious seriousness that means the culture is not held back by old corrupt ideas? Whatever it is, it is an inspiration. Take what you need from your past, the rituals that connect you to your self, your land and your people, and invent a world of convenience, beauty and progress. It is all here. I have a tendency to romance Japan, I cannot help it, as I am served food in a delicate bowl by a reverential older lady in a pale kimono, I am swept up in the warmth enabled by such ritual. The young Americans to my right speak loudly of their Indonesian girlfriends sexual habits but at my table we are in hushed reverie for the slices of Snapper and Tuna sashimi topped with onion and bathed in a sweet soy sauce. Quietly, hushedly, we complain that the best Tuna is now going to China.
More from William Gibson:
“And tonight, watching the Japanese do what they do here, amid all this electric kitsch, all this randomly overlapped media, this chaotically stable neon storm of marketing hoopla, I’ve got my answer: Japan is still the future, and if the vertigo is gone, it really only means that they’ve made it out the far end of that tunnel of prematurely accelerated change. Here, in the first city to have this firmly and this comfortably arrived in this new century – the most truly contemporary city on earth – the center is holding.” – William Gibson, 2001
In other words, Tokyo leads the way in showing us that the future is enabled by our past, we need to hold on as we reach.
I love it here.