Tokyo – Secrets and Lies

Before we get started here, I just want to put one thing out there: I really do like Japan. It’s going to sound like I don’t, but really I do. This is a post about perceptions and my preconceived notions. We’ll have a bunch of blog posts coming up about stuff that we love about Japan, but, for me, the overriding thing I am taking away from my time here is that this country is NOT what I thought it to be. I learned two of the most important things about Japan within 10 minutes or arriving at Narita Airport, though I didn’t realize it until later.

The first thing we did after collecting bags was to go to the ATM. Japanese ATMs are notoriously finicky about accepting foreign cards, so we were advised to take out a large amount of cash immediately at the airport. I followed the signs towards the ATM but was confounded by what I saw. It was not an ATM that you or I might know. Instead it was a HUGE machine, about the size of two xerox machines stacked on top of each other. It appeared to be the first ATM ever built. It had mechanical push buttons like you might find on an IBM terminal from 1984. So, Japan Myth #1 — This is a high tech, technology obsessed nation where everything is cutting edge and shiny and new.  This is not the case. This country is, in fact, pretty old and antiquated. People still FAX stuff here. Papers for our rail passes were filed in triplicate with eleventy billion stamps. The aforementioned ATMs GO TO SLEEP AT NIGHT so you cannot use them. Most salarymen, including young ones, still use flip phones. Don’t even think about using a credit card ANYWHERE because this entire country is strictly cash only (on the plus side, no one blinks when you use a 10,000 yen note — about $100 — to purchase a pack of gum at the 7-11).

After the ATM creaked its way through my transaction we proceeded to customs. There, a group of 3 young women were taking a group shot of themselves arriving. Within seconds a uniformed man with an armband came CAREENING through the terminal crossing his arms in a big X, SCREAMING at them to stop. You cannot take photos in the customs hall. Why? Because THAT’S THE RULE. So, I also quickly learned another few things about Japan in this moment: First, there are a LOT of arbitrary rules. Second, there will always be a guy with an armband (Heretofore referred to as “Armband man” or simply “Armband”) enforcing those arbitrary rules. Standing too close to the edge of the platform in the subway? THAT MIGHT BE DANGEROUS. Armband man will blow his whistle at you and make sure you’re staying safe. Want to dance at a bar? DON’T. Dancing leads to DRUGS WHICH LEAD TO DEATH. Good thing there’s a RULE AGAINST IT.

Rules exist to keep us safe!

Rules exist to keep us safe!

One thing that you’ve heard which is true about Japan is that people are polite. VERY polite. IRRITATINGLY polite. Our first day in Tokyo we went to buy some subway passes. We had a bit of trouble at the machine but then a kind businessman next to us asked “Do you need help?” (This was to be the first and last time a Japanese person was able to fluently communicate with us in English). We explained we wanted subway cards but couldn’t see where to buy them on the machine. He says “Hrmm…wait here.” I think “Oh! How NICE this guy is!” He goes and talks to the station attendant at the window. They talk for 3 solid minutes with lots of gesturing. Finally, the subway attendant comes over to us with a guidebook in English all about the subway system. He speaks no english but he takes us over to the machine that was NEXT TO the one we were using before and walks us through the process….even though it’s IN ENGLISH. Turns out that the problem was simply we couldn’t use that particular machine. We had to step 3 feet to the left and use that machine instead. Why couldn’t he just gesture to us “use the other machine?”

How you answer that question says a lot about how you view Japan. One answer is that he was just trying to be extra helpful to foreigners. The other answer, the one I take after over 2 weeks in this country, is that Japanese are convinced that their country is just TOO HARD for “gaijin” (foreigners) and they simply can’t do ANYTHING for themselves. This is repeated over and over again. No transaction is too simple that it cannot be overcomplicated by “helping” you.

I take this, perhaps cynically, as a lack of respect. Once we were walking in a park and a group of teenage girls walked past us and all giggling one of them said “hello!” Our friend answered back “Hi.” This set off an eruption of giggles and squeals and they all ran away tittering. These girls weren’t trying to practice their English. Instead, they were trying to do something just to evoke a reaction. Like a child pushing a button on a Speak & Spell. They weren’t trying to make a cultural connection — they just wanted to see the foreigner monkeys dance. They weren’t being cruel or mean or even rude. They just don’t understand why it might bother you. Of course, this bit of minor racism has its advantages. While it’s legal to drink a beer on the street, most Japanese people would never do it. Still, it’s OK for us gaijin to do it because, well, we’re just too stupid to know any better.

I was super excited to come to Tokyo. I was expecting it to be what every American thinks Tokyo is: A hypermodern Blade Runner like fashion and style capital where anything goes until the wee hours of the morning. Tokyo is not exactly that. True, that iconic image you have in your mind of Shibuya Crossing (that insane intersection with a million people and blinding neon lights) DOES exist…but it’s as representative of Tokyo as Times Square is of New York City.

Shibuya Crossing. From ground level, you can see the cracks in the pavement.

Shibuya Crossing. From ground level, it’s just another busy intersection.


Tokyo is more quiet, empty alleys than it is 6 lane superhighways with flashing lights and mobs of people. I’d heard about the craaaaaazy vending machines here where you can buy anything from beer and sake to used schoolgirl panties! Turns out, only things you can buy in vending machines are cigarettes, soda, coffee, tea and if you’re really letting loose, some ice cream.

After walking past literally thousands of vending machines, this banana machine was the ONLY one of any interest.

After walking past literally thousands of vending machines, this banana machine was the ONLY one of any interest. I’ve been told a handful of beer machines still exist, but we’ve yet to see them.

How did this happen? How did this Japan’s idiosyncrasies become its stereotypes? I’m not quite sure, but it does seem that tourists who visit here just want to revel in those things rather than find true, modern japan. They want to see cherry blossoms, a few ancient shrines and then look at insanely dressed harajuku girls and hello kitty and all the neon signs and exclaim “oooh, isn’t THIS a crazy contrast?!” No tourist who returns from Japan wants to say to their friends “It was nice! Not as crazy as you’ve heard. Kinda boring, in fact. But it was ok.” No. What people want is this:


And this:


Aaaaand this:

I'm sure she's ok, but she's no Girls Generation

I’m sure she’s not bad, but she’s no Girls Generation

Look, all those stereotypical things you’ve heard about Japan, they ARE here and we saw them and they were fun. It’s just that, for me, they don’t define this place. They give it some interesting color, but when I think of Japan,  all that weird stuff that you’re oddly familiar with will be the farthest thing from my mind. This country is really interesting and a lot of fun and definitely very unique. Look out for the next few posts where we’ll share some of the things that we really love about Japan: Friends! Ramen! Sushi — oh LORD the SUSHI. Izakayas (Japanese pubs)! Shinkansen (bullet trains)! Don’t touch that dial! SO MUCH MORE TO COME.


2 responses to “Tokyo – Secrets and Lies

  1. Pingback: The future is here: and it is delicious | Banh Mi and You

  2. Izakaya! They’re starting to take off here in Edmonton (somewhat inexplicably), and I LOVE THEM TOO.

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