Sep 23, 2023
Sep 23, 2023
The similarities between Japan and the UK are not readily apparent, but on a recent trip to Tokyo I was reminded of my yearlong stay in Nottingham. There are cultural commonalities between the two countries apart from historical and geographical similarities.
Both are islands. Both have a record of colonizing other territories. And in terms of cultural attributes, both societies have a very strong sense of privacy. In Nottingham, when I caught the train from Beeston train station to London, I found evidence of the stereotypical Englishman’s reserve and formality: passengers who had been taking the train for years barely acknowledged their co-passengers. They came into the train station, with lips buttoned up and their newspapers firmly clasped in their hands to serve as a silent, if over-intellectual companion for most of the journey. A nod of the head was all they permitted themselves, even with those who had ridden with them for decades.
So also was the case in Tokyo. The Japanese are possibly even a little ahead of the Brits in terms of their privacy needs. The English often forbid the use of mobiles in restaurants and inside theatres; in Japan the use of mobile phones in prohibited on all modes of public transport. This included the airport limousine I took from Narita airport to get to the Hyatt Regency in Shinjuku, Tokyo. A recording that periodically announced approaching stopovers also forbade passengers from using mobile phones.
Expectedly the Japanese are a technological step ahead of the Brits and most of the rest of the world in terms of mobile phone usage.
Whenever I travel to a new country, one of the first things that I do is to get a SIM card for my phone, and I have rarely found this to be a problem. In Tokyo certainly I anticipated no problems on this account. In London you find SIM card vending machines at the airport where you punch in the SIM card of the company of your choice, throw in the money and presto! Within a matter of seconds you can be connected with the rest of the world. I rather expected similar options in Tokyo. However, I couldn’t find anyone, man or machine selling SIM cards and after due enquires was directed to a section in the airport’s basement where I found three mobile phone shops renting out SIM cards.
The ladies at the first two shops inserted a SIM into my phone, and when it didn’t work said they couldn’t help. The lady at the third shop made matters clear.
‘Is your phone 3 G?’ she asked.
I didn’t know what a 3 G phone was so I gave my instrument for her to examine, and after a few seconds she pronounced that it was not 3 G. Just an ordinary GSM.
‘No Japanese SIM card will work on your phone,’ she announced with a great deal of conviction.
I was half relieved at her assertion. At least I now knew that I’d have to manage without a mobile.
If all Japanese have 3 G phones, this conceivably gives them more entertainment possibilities with their phone. At any given time on the tube, train or monorail, I found the majority of my silent co-passengers connected to their mobile. I asked Katsui Kaneko, a Japanese friend with whom I reconnected soon after reaching Tokyo, what they were up to.
‘All sorts of things,’ she said. ‘Some are reading SMS’s, a few are surfing the Internet and checking emails, and others are listening to music.’ Katsui, who is in her mid thirties and is tall with long black flowing hair, teaches English at a Polytechnic in Yokohama. We had first met in Shimla where she had come visiting as a Japanese tourist, and she promised to take out some time to show me around.
‘I don’t see anyone reading the newspaper.’
‘You do see that sometimes,’ she said, ‘but it’s simpler to switch on the television on your phone, and hear the news.’
That made sense, even though I belong to the more traditional group that prefers to feel paper and read it rather than watch a small screen.
The Japanese character, though of a quiet, reticent sort for generations, is an evolving one. At New Delhi airport, while waiting for the airline to commence boarding, I found a young group of Japanese girls who had clearly been on a tour of India, laughing and joking loudly in a very Indian fashion. Sushmita, a young Indian girl sitting next to me who’d been working in Japan for a few years agreed this was clearly the Indian influence. Such behavior was not typically Japanese.
‘What do you do in Japan?’ I asked her.
‘I teach yoga,’ she said, explaining that there was great interest in Japan in yoga and ayurveda. She was carrying rose water and ‘amla’ candy for some Japanese friends that she had bought from Patanjali, the name of a chain of shops run in the name of yoga guru Swami Ramadev.
Despite the general Japanese character, boys will be boys, the world over, and so, I guess will be girls in changing, evolving Japan. Two days old in Tokyo, one late night wandering through the streets of Kabuki Cho, I thought I’d take a short cut back to my hotel, the Hyatt Regency at Shinjuku through one of the Metro’s exits. As I walked down the stairs I found the station literally teeming with hundreds of youngsters who had just come to the centre of the city to party. I wondered how this crowd, composed mostly of low income students would get back to their houses with no bus or metro service, the last of which closed soon after midnight.
Do Japanese like to party? They most certainly do. And Kabuki Cho – the street near Shinjuku, not to be confused with the Japanese Kabuki opera – is the place to hang out for the young, away from the prohibitively expensive prices of glittering Ginza that is more open to the high-end shopper and rich, older Japanese men who seek night life and entertainment.
I came up and decided to spend another hour on the street. I found a roadside café, and ordered a variety of bitter Japanese tea, (which apart from being generally good for you, is also supposed to absorb your fat) watching the life all around. One o’clock at night, the activity on the streets and inside the izakayas – the name for informal, inexpensive Japanese pubs – showed no sign of subsiding.
‘Where did you get that from?’ I asked Oyagi, a Japanese student, who happened to be sitting at my café reading surprisingly a copy of an English newspaper. He was waiting for his date, coming from a party in another part of town.
‘I study English,’ he explained. He was an engineering student, but also learning English. There were Japanese newspapers in English available from the newsagent, and he read it to improve his language.
‘How are all these young people going to get home?’
‘They won’t,’ he smiled back at me.
Oyagi explained that most of them would end up spending the night at an Internet café. The area was strewn with Internet cafes, he explained, and many had sofas that you could sleep on.
I finished my tea and decided to investigate. It was as Oyagi had said. Most Internet café’s in the area had small cabins, with comfortable sofas. Some cabins were small with just a single sofa but others had two and there were even some with a large sofa and a smaller one that could have possibly accommodated three students. Internet cafes with a shower facility charged a slightly higher rate so that you could set out the following morning for wherever you were embarked looking bright eyed and bushy tailed as it were, and not necessarily like something the cat dragged in.
When a student was finished with the pub – or rather when it had shut down at two or three in the morning – he could wander into one of these Internet cafes alone or with a girlfriend and get comfortable on the sofa. The Internet was at hand for playing Games, listening to music, or simply surfing the Net. Or you could continue to chat with your girlfriend, or buddies as the case may be, taking care not to disturb those who may be sleeping in the next-door cabin; for throat lubrication the café’s provide an unlimited supply of a dozen beverages that included tea, coffee and several fruit juices.
‘Drink as much you like,’ an Internet Café’s owner informed me. ‘No extra charge.’ He also pointed at the bookshelves full of reading material.
The reading material was of no use to me, as it was all in Japanese. Most of it consisted of Manga comics, extremely popular in Japan. During my childhood I had been addicted to comic books myself, and devoured Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Little Dot, Richie Rich and the like but had always felt starved of sufficient material to read. There wasn’t any such shortage here. Thousands of Manga comics lay stacked on the shelves and if those weren’t enough for you, some had been uploaded on to the computers and you could read them online.
Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a single one in English – and ultimately I had to purchase a rather expensive English translation of one from the Kinokuniya bookshop in order to satisfy my curiosity. When I started reading it, I just couldn’t understand it at first, till I realized that Manga comics, even if they are translated into English have to be read back to front and right to left rather than the other way around. After an initial wrong start, when I started reading properly I soon got into the flow of things. The comic I was reading was about a short, very young Japanese boy with a tail, who has superhuman strength and together with his tall, ambitious girl companion they are on the lookout for a Crystal Ball, which will grant them anything they wish. After the initial hiccup I found myself engrossed, and discovered that unlike the comics I had read as a child, this had some fairly adult material included in it. The two adventurers need the help of a very powerful wizard who is only willing to help if he is allowed to feel the girl’s breasts – which, because she is ambitious, she reluctantly allows him to do!
Language can be a problem in Japan as few Japanese speak English. The Japanese do concede its dominance in the world in many ways though: the tape running in English on the airport limousine, the English announcements on trains and subways, and even the English script that appears on some shops such as Family Mart. Or even for that matter the naming of the shop as ‘Family Mart’. But for all these concessions, it is difficult to find your way around without English and I was extremely luck to have as a friend and periodic companion a Japanese girl who spoke English.
For those youngsters who want a slightly better place to crash the night, and are on a higher budget a second option exists. They could decide to spend the night in a Capsule Hotel. Yes, that is the correct name of the hotel, another example of English usage. There are several such establishments in Tokyo that provide very basic facilities but charge less than say a B or even C grade hotel would charge. They are used occasionally by students, but mainly by low budget travelers from outside Tokyo who have to remain in the city for short durations.
One sunny afternoon I walked into a Capsule Hotel. I lied to the lady at the Front desk that I wanted to see the place as I was contemplating staying over the night. She sized me up as coming from a relatively affluent bracket of tourist despite my well-worn jeans and politely tried to dissuade me from spending a night. Upon my insistence she instructed a porter to show me around.
I entered the sleeping quarters. The sleeping space was contained inside large boxes, placed alongside each other in a row. There was a ground floor box and a first floor box and it reminded me of train journeys in Second Class train compartments in India. The boxes were the size of a large coffin perhaps and contained a mattress covered with clean white linen. You could snuggle inside and try to sleep – but it wouldn’t be at all easy for a well built American or Australian.
As I headed towards the bathing area, where the porter was taking me next, I told myself that for slender Japanese, the Capsule Hotel was possibly not too uncomfortable.
And then inside the bathing area which had two three large water tanks in which there were a few Japanese bathing, I spotted in the largest of these giant bath tubs, an extremely fat Japanese who looked like a Sumo wrestler. From the furious look he cast upon the porter and me, I feared he would jump outside at any moment and lash out at us in anger for having violated his privacy. Clearly then there were some larger-than-life Japanese who also used the Capsule Hotel.
Heavyweight Japanese are few in number. Even ordinarily plump Japanese are a rarity. During my brief stay in Japan practically all the Japanese I saw and met were slim.
‘It’s the Japanese diet and lifestyle,’ said Katsui. ‘We eat healthy foods, and we walk a lot.’
Even if the Japanese did not follow their colonizing cousins across the globe in organizing walking tours I did see very many of them walking briskly on pedestrianised streets, apart from the regular ones and the train stations. And Katsui was also right that the Japanese diet in general contained less oil, starch and other fatty substances.
Elaborating on the theme of healthy Japanese life style, Katsui continued: ‘There are Japanese who have gone to live and work in the US for some years. Many of them have returned overweight with health problems connected to obesity. Once they are back and they revert to the normal healthy Japanese life style, within a few months they have lost several pounds, and start looking and feeling healthier.’
The average life expectancy in Japan is eighty-two, significantly higher than it is for the Americans.
I did find a place where I found many overweight or super-heavy Japanese and I spent several hours there. This was in the Ryogoku Sumo stadium, a kind of amphitheater that can seat some eleven thousand people. It is truly a grand event, and one not worth missing. Wow! What a performance!
Sumo wrestling championships are held only six times a year: three times in Tokyo and only once a year in the cities of Fukuoka, Osaka and Nagoya.
I went on the second last day of the tournament that had many prominent fighters in attendance. Katsui warned me that I might not enjoy it so much; there were many technical aspects that you needed to know in order to fully appreciate it.
As things turned out, she needn’t have worried on my account.
I had never imagined I would enjoy it so much. It was fantastic. Also, I have to add, extremely civilized. The contestants bowed and greeted each other before the contest, as well as after the contest. None of your heavyweight boxing or WWF lingo: ‘I’m gonna beat yo up,’ or even copying the genuinely great Muhammad Ali’s, ‘I’m the greatest!’
Courtesy and colonial conquest are common to the English and Japanese. If the English succeeded in conquering far more lands than the Japanese, the latter outclassed them in observing decorum and have elevated courtesy to an art form. And nowhere do you see this more than in the Sumo ring. The wrestlers bow to each sometimes once, sometimes twice and sometimes thrice. And even after the match is over they greet each other. That’s truly cricket, ol’ chap, as a Brit would have said.
Having bought cheaper tickets I was far from the ring but could see things clearly enough. For some time I came down and stood on the ground floor nearer to the wrestlers just beside small tables where people were eating and drinking. If you wanted to have cozy sofa seating with your loved ones with a table in front, this was possible in the stadium. This, of course, cost you more, almost as much as it would cost you to be in the front rows.
There were two sides. East Japan and West Japan; even though when I thought of the length of the island, it would have been more logical for the contest to have been between North and South Japan. There were people in the audience who owed their loyalties to one of the sides. The cheering was like that in a football match.
Prior to the actual fight, the Sumo wrestler would spread apart his legs and then raise one slowly and bring it down, reminding you of an elephant bringing down his foot. At the very instant, his supporters in the stadium would erupt into cheering. And so would be the public reaction to his contestant’s antics a few minutes later. It was the Sumu equivalent to a body builder flexing his muscles. And then the fight would start.
As for the techniques that Katsui mentioned, I sure she is right. There are bound to be many techniques and finer points to the thirty odd matches that I witnessed that were completely lost on me. It didn’t stop me from experiencing the raw excitement you feel when you have one heavyweight straining against his competitor and nearly pushing the other outside the ring. To win you have to either push your opponent out of the ring, or throw him to the floor – and every so often, the man resisting steps aside and his challenger crashes out of the ring. There is clearly a great deal of skill and subtlety involved here.
To avoid the expensive taxis I made full use of the public transport, which meant that I used the metro, the JR – short for Japan Rail – as well as the monorail.
I used the metro and then the monorail – which is operated totally mechanically, without a driver or attendant at the beginning or end of the train – to reach the famous Odaiba beach area. High-rise hotels abound in this scenic part of Tokyo and huddle for space together with shopping malls and restaurants that provide you choice of an international cuisine to sup on while looking out towards the Bay with the glittering city behind as the backdrop.
I chose instead to sit on the beach with Katsui who had taken off for the day to show me around. I longed for a hot cup of tea.
‘Shall I get you a can from the machine?’ she asked.
‘Canned hot tea?’ I was startled. I had expected canned cold drinks, but in Japan you had hot beverages in cans as well.
I decided to try one.
As I sipped my tea from the can and gazed at the Sumida River beyond a Statue of Liberty look-alike, I was startled to recall the taste of tea I had savored in another very different location: this was the beverage frequently offered at Indian railway stations served out of an earthen kulhad. Remarkably, this Japanese canned tea had a similar aroma as well as the over sweetened taste of that Indian brew. I could have been fooled had my eyes been shut.
‘Why should the Japanese install a copy of the Statue of Liberty at this place?’ I said.
‘It’s a French original,’ said Katsui. ‘They gifted it to us.’
Apparently the French Government had made a scaled-down replica of the original and presented it to Japan in the year 2000.
‘But this is a much smaller version,’ I argued. ‘You should have protested.’
‘I suppose they thought that we Japanese always believe in miniaturization,’ she joked back.
Japanese girls are not miniature, but often enough they are small and petite. Tights are very popular, also high heels, and for very many girls dyeing hair is extremely common. While you come across the occasional outlandish red or yellow, brown remains the most popular color. Found attractive by men from different nations and continents, some Japanese girls are open to forming relationships with foreigners that occasionally culminate in marriage. I’d see some smart looking girls climb into the metro with their white Caucasian boyfriends in tow in tube stations nearest to the Roppongi area, which is where the largest number of European expatriates live.
Living accommodation is often very small in crowded Tokyo and other cities. I like living in a reasonably spacious accommodation and had been careful to select the Hyatt Regency in Shinjuku partially on account of the large-by-Japanese-standard rooms.
Oyagi, the Japanese boy whom I had befriended took me to his accommodation one day, not far from the Shinjuku area. It was a pitifully small accommodation on the third floor of an eight-storey building, consisting of just one room, which had a bed that went into the wall during the day, converting the bedroom into a living room cum study.
Despite the diminutive size of the apartment, the toilet was of fair size. There was a panel next to the seat with all kinds of buttons. There were all kinds of controls for lighting, music, different kinds of flushing and so on and forth. Sitting in that toilet is an experience akin to being seated in the cockpit of an F 16.
‘This was originally designed for old people,’ Oyagi laughed, when I quizzed him about it, ‘but it soon caught on, and everyone has one. Japanese women in particular like to put on music – they don’t want the sounds they make to be heard.’
I looked everywhere but found no signs of a fridge anywhere.
‘I don’t keep a fridge,’ he said. ‘You see that…’ and he pointed to a superstore just across the street. ‘There is a twenty-four seven store there that has everything I might want to keep inside a fridge. What do I need a fridge for? I just need to walk across.’
This particular superstore was an outstanding example of energy conservation, for when we stepped outside in the evening I found it to be in darkness raising a question about its round the clock service.
Oyagi laughed, and asked me to follow him.
The lights came on through hidden sensors as soon as we entered. And inside too, when we went to buy vegetables, the tomatoes lay shrouded in dim lighting and immediately flushed a bright red as we moved our hands to pick some up.
I wanted to get a feel of at least one other Japanese city.
Kyoto is the place to go to if you want to be in the cultural heart of Japan. In Tokyo itself you cannot even find a Geisha performance, unless it a hotel specially organizes it for a large well paying group. But, said my friend and guide Katsui, I needed at least a week to properly see Kyoto with its many monuments, palaces and temples. In this sense Tokyo has less to offer although I did see the famous temple of Asakakusa with its sedate lanterns and Buddhas.
Kyoto is also not very near to Tokyo being a three-hour journey by the Bullet Train or Shinkasen as it is called. I accepted Katsui’s suggestion for a day trip to Yokohama, Japan’s major port city only an hour or so away from Tokyo by JR, short for Japan Rail. We boarded the train from Shimbashi train station and were there within the hour.
There appeared to be a greater number of skyscrapers here in Yokohama than in Tokyo. With a population of three million or so, it qualifies as Japan’s second largest city, next only to Tokyo, but the buildings here are more spread out, with the air not so cluttered with bridges and highways fifty feet off the ground.
There is a joke in Tokyo about disgruntled Chinese tourists wanting their money back, disappointed that Tokyo’s skyscrapers are not even as impressive as those now found in Shanghai. The second complaint made by male Chinese tourists is that their tour guides cannot provide them an evening’s entertainment that includes the famous nyotaimori. This is a legendary practice rather more talked about than practiced that entails eating sushi and sashimi dishes off the naked body of a beautiful Japanese girl lying on the dining table. It’s possible for a girl’s naked body to serve as a platter for sushi and sashimi since those dishes are mostly cool or at room temperature!
I savored and enjoyed sushi several times both in the cheaper revolving table restaurants as well as at a more exclusive restaurant in Ginza, even if as an Indian the idea of having something dry with rice – instead of a curry or a daal – runs contrary to conventionally accepted wisdom on how a meal should be constituted.
Chinese male tourists are reportedly also annoyed that they don’t find the ‘mixed bathing’ that Japan is known for. As I ascertained from Katsui, mixed bathing is not common at all, at least in the big metropolitan cities. Paradoxically enough, you may encounter it in Inns in smaller towns.
Prior to my arrival in Japan I had read a series of very short stories by the Nobel Laureate Kawabata. A story I had particularly enjoyed has the narrator staying in a small town where he encounters a slender, longhaired girl being tenderly bathed by her husband in the large mixed bath of the hotel. The encounter is tragic for the girl is now an invalid and can no longer give herself a bath. It is his former girl friend, and before he comes to terms with it towards the end of the story, he blames herself for the misfortune that has befallen her.
Yokohama has a large Chinese population. Its bustling China Town, one of the largest in the world, is well worth a visit for cheap souvenirs and excellent low priced meals, something that is not always easy to find in Japan. There are the old Chinese immigrants as well as newer ones, and according to Katsui, it is not always easy to tell the difference since the Chinese accent is pronounced in both cases.
There are a fair number of tourists that come to Yokohama. Prominent attractions include a large well-kept zoo on the outskirts, the Ramen Museum that is dedicated to the popular noodle dish, the traditionally landscaped Sankeien Gardens, the Osanbashi Pier which has luxury liners docking there and much else besides.
After a low priced but delicious Chinese meal, Katsui took me to meet her octogenarian grandmother, who lived in a suburb less than thirty minutes away within the Kanagawa Prefecture. On the ground floor I found traditional Tatami matting, a mattress instead of a bed for sleeping, no chairs and only a small low table that was used for eating and on which the lady served me traditional Japanese tea together with a very large sugared grape that came out of a small grey cardboard box.
Keiko Ono, the old lady – nicknamed Koyo during her hey days – had been devoted for much of her life to the playing of Shamisen, a traditional Japanese musical instrument. Longer than the sitar but with fewer strings the instrument was originally covered by snakeskin, but as this became hard to procure it became replaced by cat or dog skin.
Koyo urged Katsui and me to go and see a performance of kabuki that played in Tokyo. Her enthusiasm for this classical, highly stylized Japanese opera was understandable given that she had played music that accompanied the performance on many occasions. While the kabuki performers themselves came from only a single family, it was permissible for the background music that accompanied the performance to be played by outsiders. In the early days of kabuki the music ensemble did not include the shamisen, but it soon became an indispensable part of kabuki and of almost all music in the Edo period. But now, in Japan, more modern Western instruments and music have taken over.
Koyo, who was nearly ninety, but in her full senses, had few possessions that she valued. She took out albums to show us: photographs of her playing, with her friends who played other traditional instruments, of her teachers, of great artists and of several of the kabuki performances. Her favourite kabuki actor from her youth figured prominently.
In Shakespeare’s plays at the time of the playwright the actors were all male. It was men who dressed up in female costumes and played the female parts. This was the case with kabuki as well; unlike the Brits, till today all female characters are played by male actors who put on make up, wear wigs and female costumes.
I went for a performance at the Kabuki Theater in Tokyo upon my return and enjoyed it very much, owing largely to the availability of a small gadget that that ran a prerecorded tape in English throughout the performance. When I spoke to younger Japanese friends, such as Oyagi, most hadn’t seen the Japanese opera and didn’t care to do so, not unlike youngsters from upper class families in Delhi, who will prefer to while away the evening at a discotheque rather than go for a sitar recital, even if it is conducted by a maestro.
I had arrived in Tokyo during a period when the nation had a long weekend on account of two national holidays. I had thought of visiting the Izu peninsula famous for its hot springs in Atami and Shuzenji. It is not far from Tokyo and popular among tourists. When I checked online as well as with the tourist agencies in Tokyo I found that hotel accommodation was not available. Too many Japanese were rushing there it appeared. Where else could I go?
From Odaiba I had enjoyed a ferry ride over the Sumida River. From a restaurant in Yokohama that had a youthful, energetic band playing excellent jazz tunes I had gazed upon the waters of the North Pacific Ocean. I was tempted to complete my short visit of Japan by visiting a lake, the famous Lake Ashinoko, from where you could on a clear day have a glimpse of Mount Fuji. A day trip was possible. I just hoped that there wouldn’t be too many people.
As it turned out there was a great rush, and this spoiled my visit. In hindsight it may have just been better to explore Tokyo further. There were crowds at every stage of the journey. In terms of transport my journey had three segments to it. First, we took the train from Shinjuko to base camp at Hakone as it were, then we took a mountain train, and finally we went by ropeway to Lake Ashinoko. At each point of this journey there were large queues and while we were lucky enough to get seats on the way back we went to the lake standing most of the way. There was barely enough time to grab a quick bite at a restaurant overlooking the lake, hop on a ferry which was pleasant enough, but hurry back to catch the last ropeway ride. At the end of the day, it would all have still been worthwhile had I managed to see Mount Fuji, but alas, it was shrouded in mist and fog. Nevertheless the journey had its interesting and insightful moments.
While I have traveled on mountain trains in India – the Himalayan Queen that goes to Shimla for instance – I have never traveled on one that uses the switchback system. Indeed for some time I was in confusion. It seemed to me that we were in a shunting yard and the train was simply moving back and forth, till it dawned on me that we were gaining height. A straight climb would have meant greater power for the engine, and fewer passengers, so the train went up at a less steep angle, and then returned and then up again and so on and forth. We finally made it to our destination: the ropeway that would finally take us to the lake. Two steps forward and one-step backwards.
The journey gave me an opportunity to observe first hand how disciplined the Japanese as a race and nation were. Despite the multitudes, it was all so orderly, so well organized, people did not push, shove and if they tried to grab a seat before the others it was done with a measure of efficiency combined with restraint. No one would be pushed aside. Courtesy was never sacrificed at the altar of selfish need. I don’t need to contrast such attitudes with that in other nations, including my own. I am told however that during peak hour traffic on working days, people do push and shove to get into the underground. That, I’m convinced, would be prompted by sheer necessity which for me that suggests even greater fortitude on the part of the Japanese who have not allowed such experiences to diminish their general attitude of courtesy and restraint.
At Sonzan just before Lake Ashi we found a Little Prince Museum. I had enjoyed the classic tale by Antoine de Saint-Exupery many years ago, even if I didn’t think it was as great as some of my friends did. I was startled. Why should they have a museum named after a character in a French storybook? Katsui told me that it was very popular in Japan earlier on – not so much nowadays. This is the strange thing here: on the one hand the Japanese are so insular, on the other hand so open. I’m not even so sure that they have Little Prince Museums in France!
I had read Kawabata – who ultimately committed a public suicide like so many Japanese artists and writers – to get a sense of the Japanese ‘spirit’, which you can find more in his writings than you can for instance in the writings of that other great Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Murakami, who writes fascinatingly of modern achieved great fame and success with his breakthrough novel ‘Norwegian Wood’; his novels dot the bookshelves of the Kinokuniya bookstore I visited in Tokyo. The title derives from a Beatles song, and the novel’s runaway success suggests the extent to which Japan has fallen under Western influence. Again the contradiction: on the one hand it is among the most westernized of Asian nations and one that is receptive to outside influences and yet at the same time there is an insular and excessively private side to them.
When I think about it, I should have easily anticipated Tokyo’s architecture, but it came as a surprise for me. After Beijing the last Asian city I had visited, I had somehow imagined Tokyo to also have six lane highways, but that wasn’t at all the case. There’s simply not enough space. What you do have instead are narrower highways, often disappearing into tunnels that run parallel to the sixth or seventh floor of buildings. A not uncommon sight is to see a train running above you and another road running above the train. The Japanese use air space where there is shortage on the ground.
And yet for a city of its density and population I did not find Tokyo to be noisy. There were many parts of the city that displayed an unusual quietness, and this I believe has much to do with the Japanese character, which in this regard is similar to the English sensibility, which too values quietness.
For their part the English view the Japanese as completely different from themselves, but for someone on the outside like myself the similarities are only too apparent.
It is true that the Japanese desire for conquest, what the German Nietcheze would have called its collective ‘will to power’ lagged behind their fellow islanders, the English but in terms of community characteristics they value privacy even more. The English are polite as compared with other races, the Japanese even more so. And finally to convince any skeptical reader who says I am laboring the point, I will point to the famous English saying that ‘a man’s best friend is his dog’.
A Lithuanian colleague at Nottingham University cited this saying as proof of what he called the Englishman’s inherent coldness.
‘Imagine,’ he would say loudly to anyone of us in the mature students common room who chose to listen, ‘for zees people their dog is their best friend!’
I wonder what he would have said about the Japanese. After all what is perceived as coldness by one race is understood to be politeness and civility by another.
Last day in Tokyo I chanced upon an advertisement in The Japan Times for dog dancing lessons. Dog dancing?!
Katsui confirmed the existence of emerging dog-dancing businesses.
‘According to some estimates,’ she said, ‘the pet industry in Japan is worth one trillion yen.’ She paused in her calculations. ‘That would be something like 9.5 billion dollars.’
‘What kind of music is played at these sessions?’
‘Oh, anything,’ she said, ‘but I believe that Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ is very popular.’
‘Let me get this straight,’ I said. ‘The dog owner and his dog go to this dance class where the instructor will teach them to dance with each other.’
‘Shouldn’t a man prefer to dance with his wife or girlfriend rather than his dog?’
‘The true aren’t mutually exclusive,’ she responded. ‘You can dance with your husband or wife as the case may be, but you could also dance with your dog. Even with both of them together.’
‘What about children?’
‘They can join in,’ she laughed. ‘A happy family with pets all dancing together. The dogs learn to go between their owners legs and to circle them.’
As the flight took off from Narita airport towards Bali, my next stop I thought of my experiences over the course of the past five days. The image of the dancing dogs came to my mind again and again. Surely in Japan if a thief entered a home that kept a dog at a time while the master was out, the dog would try and frighten the thief away by barking or trying to bite him. I imagined a dog barking and snapping, with the thief jumping up and down.
The new training that taught dogs how to dance might end up confusing the poor animal. Possibly instead of continuing to attack the thief, the dog might mistake the thief’s movements for a dance, forget that the man is an intruder, and start dancing in tune with him instead.
More by : Rajesh Talwar