In preparing for our trip to Japan, I had many preconceptions about what life would be like in Tokyo. There was one clear idea at the forefront of my mind, and that was of an electric, hi-tech society where all the latest technologies could be found at your fingertips, and – most importantly – operating with flawless Japanese efficiency.
On the surface, this description was unsurprisingly accurate. We experienced the ‘electric-town’ of Akihabara, where electrical goods stores line the pavement with shiny, colourful (the Japanese like everything in a full range of colours) gadgets. Jam-packed to the corner of every panorama in the central districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya were flashing lights, bright screens and synthetic music, so inescapable that an afternoon of shopping could make one feel quite nauseous. Also, the myth of the hi-tech toilet (heated seat, water-noises that play to make you feel less self-conscious, automatic flush as soon as you get up and so on and so forth) that I had heard tell of before I arrived, was proved very true.
However, this is where I first noticed the paradox that Fitzpatrick describes in this article:
Alongside these intergalactic toilets were always, without fail, ‘non-western toilets’ (i.e. a hole in the floor). It struck me as odd that a country with such an advanced reputation insists on still using something, that to any Briton, would seem very primitive.
Fitzpatrick’s article talks of the Japanese culture restricting innovation, something which I’d never have thought to have rung true until experiencing it for myself. He talks of the refusal of digital publishing, which I can well believe to be true after seeing crowds of be-suited men around the comic stands after a long day at work, leafing through the thick paper volumes with glee and excitement.
In many ways, I found aspects of the society surprisingly Victorian. This was triggered when our friend, Clare, pointed out that many Japanese women like to make their skin appear whiter than it is – not in a traditional Geisha manner, but in a fashionista vein similar to the reason we buy fake tan. It was then that I began to notice many more Victorian-like attitudes in the Japanese way of life:
– Shop staff insist on greeting you (often in an overtly enthused manner) and also insist on packaging every purchase with extreme care and numerous flourishes.
– Respect for the elder portion of society is of upmost importance, and hushed-tones are always used on trains and tubes, with the strict rule of no mobile use.
– Japanese women, and men, seem to have an obsession with collecting and adorning – themselves with copious accessories, and their possessions (in particular mobile phones) with similar trimmings and charms.
– All workers, even street-cleaners, have a sharp, clean and tidy uniform, most often with special matching headwear which make them look like they work in a Victorian sweet shop. Even the ‘little green man’ on the road crossings is far smarter than ours, and wears what appears to be a debonair bowler hat.
After seeking out these charming paradoxes to life in Tokyo, the city became much less intimidating. I found this Victorian-like politeness incredibly beguiling, and if there was anything I could bring back with me to London, it would be without a doubt this aspect of Japanese society. Even though I had gone to Tokyo for a futuristic experience, it was in fact these subtle semblances of the past that truly impressed themselves upon me.