Tuesday, February 10, 2004


The Tokyo 'shitamachi' (the old downtown) has been enjoying a renaissance for quite some time now. This isn't the first one, and I'm sure it isn't the last, but it does differ from the previous ones in some interesting ways. Some among my demographic (late 20s-mid 30s, expatriate, Tokyoite) are making it a point to position themselves in an interesting relation to this phenomenon. Naturally, individual strategies are as varied as the diversity implied by this somewhat open-ended group, but general patterns do in fact persist.

For some, this simply means saying 'to hell with it!' Of course, they are rebelling against being bamboozled (yes, 'coolness' does continue to exert its own, insidious pressure well after high school graduation, especially here in Tokyo) into wanting to live in some hyper-chic, super-exorbitant place like Daikanyama, Nakameguro (take me for example), Shimokitazawa. And as for those who utter such things? Speaking in terms of demographics, and considering Japan's current population curves, perhaps they are Japan's last, best, hope for the future...


Setting up their living spaces/ateliers in the 'shitamachi' in places like Ryogoku (a computer music-making friend from France has done this), Yanaka, or Iriya (just like my artist friend P. from NYC has done), they get by...

In any event, the livability, not to mention the affordable nature of these places is just one small part of the draw. Among this same demographic, where aesthetic inclinations sometimes eclipse often the most pressing of economic considerations, there is a healthy spirit of experimental disrespect, or perhaps disrespectful experimentality...anyway, to put it more accurately, there is a 'reverse-engineered' respect for older 'shitamachi' lifestyles and their attendant material goods which simply would not have been possible with previous generations. All of this is of course in the spirit of my favorite quote by Whitman, which I refer to whenever possible.

They are not interested in anachronism for its own sake (as many people who view Japan from the outside seem to be), but we have found the 'shitamachi' a welcome, warm, almost edifying humanitarian foil to the often over-stylized world of select shop-influenced inner-Tokyo (the triangular stretch of land between Shibuya, Ebisu and Nakame), where you pay top dollar to have everything decided for you, the hyper-consumer, well in advance. Where all is tame, and there are no unsightly surprises, which is, depending on your disposition, either the darkest, demon-dwelt depths of the inferno, or the upper echelon of seraphim-graced heaven. (Are these alliterations or kennings or neither? I forget...) For one among you, it is simultaneously both, and to this beautiful paradox of a man my attention will again turn momentarily.

The 'furoshiki' provides another interesting example. 50 years ago it was used because it was traditional. 25 year ago it began to be discarded because it WAS traditional. 5 years ago eco-aware kids realized that way beyond the tradition, there was a very 'green' reason for using this 'quaint' recyclable gift wrappping cloth.

The concept of 'suro raifu' provides another interesting example. In the case of 'suro raifu' we can find twin points of origin in the 'Chuo-sen culture' (between Nakano and Kichijoji on the Chuo-Line) and also in the Shitamachi. Tokyoites are well known as hyper-speed tribes. Now with they are finally beginning to diversity, and will probably become more and more well known for their 'hyper-sleep' tendencies from here on out.

At this point, I should make mention of the fact that I have often heard Tokyo and its outlying areas (Saitama, Yokohama, western Tokyo) compared to Manhattan and its nearby boroughs (Brooklyn, Queens, and so on), but this belies the subtle nature of the actual situation. Architecturally and ideologically speaking, the complexity of the question of the Japanese analog to the Manhattan/boroughs relationship predictably takes its own unique 'Tokyoesque' form, deserving an answer up to par. Up until the early 80s, you could still probably find some low rent 'pockets' on the island of Manhattan. In today's NYC, where more or less simple bipolar relationships are to be found (Uptown/Downtown, Manhattan/other), in Tokyo what has been unfolding in recent years could be described without understatement as polymorphous. Reasons for this can be summarized in a word, but before letting the cat out of the bag, a brief anecdote is in order.


Momus has remarked to me in private on several different occasions (publicly, this thought is implied in his copious pennings on his self-proclaimed 'spiritual homeland') that when he finds himself in conversation with Tokyoites well versed in the English language and its various, related cultural accretions, one concept that he finds suspiciously eluding their minds is (and now here we come to the word) spontaneity. Yes, psychologically speaking, in terms of actual personalities, I cannot hope but to agree with Momus' keen sentiments, which have slowly formed over a decade of meticulously exploring this ever-shifting, elusive city of modern day sliding panels and 'borrowed' scenery.

The Japanese are nothing if not punctilious, and yet curiously, in the case of something like city-planning, what reigns supreme in the Land of the Rising Sun is not 'Wa' but sheer chaos. (Turnabout being fair play, I'll give the Romanized Japanese for chaos here: 'muchitsusho' or just 'kaosu' whose English etymology intimates spells out its own pathetic, microcosmic tragedy.) Naturally Nick would object that I'm giving his ideas an unfair gloss, and to a certain extent, perhaps I am. But since I'm quite confident that after the transgression, I can always beg for his forgiveness by falling back on that old crutch, namely, that I'm saying what I'm saying just for the sake of argument. It's at least better than taking about the weather.

[The following comment (recently received by email) by Momus has been interpolated by the author on 2004.02.10. The author thanks Mr. Currie for his eternal willingness to chew the intellectual cud (actually, 'shoot the intellectual shit' has a nice ring to it as well), and to forgive the gap of a decade or more in sheer experience that for better or for worse results in such poorly formed ideas as these.]

I'm liking this Tokyo Fucking City essay too... on the question of
chaos / spontaneity, though, I wouldn't elide those so easily as you
do. I think what's key to Tokyo is the idea of 'hidden order'. The way
the centre of the city -- the imperial palace -- is hidden, the way
nobody knows how the streets work, the way all the subway lines have
different guages, the way the power and phone lines are strung up in
the air... all testify to the fact that there is a 'neat chaos', a
chaos that someone, somewhere understands. They testify -- like the
confusion of different scripts in written Japanese -- to a love of
complexity for its own sake, and in the end I think we can trace this
back to a certain shinto acceptance of multiplicity. There is a god in
everything, and if we look at it from the right angle we will
understand and accept it on its own terms. The snail-like street
layout, the tangled wires, everything will make sense on its own terms,
to the people who love it. There is no room here for 'bringing in a
consultant' or 'organisational streamlining' as we would do in the
west, with our complete lack of understanding for the otaku love that
the white-gloved station master has for his station and trains, and our
tendency to find symmetrical grids preferable to more complex
organisations of things.

- Momus

[Main text continues]


Spontanious, spontanious, spontanious...architecture?!? Architectural spontaneity? Could the reason why Tokyoites are so fastidious be due to this very fact? Men have been trying since time immemorial to square the circle, even if only in their minds. That awards for most insane, and most gridded city of the century both go to LA surely doesn't exactly undermine the postulation, does it? That Kyoto is gridded and by most accounts somewhat refined probably does, but I won't play devil's advocate here. Of course, if I did, I'd probably say that Western grids and Eastern grids (Kyoto's city grid is modeled after a Chinese gridded city) are, in philosophical terms, of altogether different ilks, since the line of thinking that led men to place their faith in Cartesian coordinates also led them to withdraw said faith from their own God. The Chinese, on the other hand, have, up until recently in the rich history of that empire, been led not to place their faith in men who are not willing to place their faith in their own God. But now that we all agree on the divinity of future Sino-American economic ventures, how the tables will turn!

Well for the time being, New York is oil and water, Tokyo is creamer in hot coffee...(Note to self: Remember how much more interesting that metaphor was for self 10 years ago than now.) In the mandelbrot-esqueness that is the zoning situation here, it isn't impossible to consider finding a reasonable place in an unreasonable town. Of course it all depends on who you know...


Anyway, it would be remiss of me not to tip my cap to Barthes for his groundbreaking thought is this area. His Empire of Signs is perhaps the high-water mark in the area of 'classical' East/West cultural interpenetration. Need I remind everyone that the aesthetics of excessive sublimities that Barthes proffers simply isn't practical anymore for those of us in the modern world. This 'high-water mark' translates in modern terms into something more akin to a half-way point in one particular cultural ebb and flow in the long history of Japan. One that may be seen as being bookended by two areas of American militarism: Perry's black ships in 1853, and one hundred years later with General Marshall with Marshal Plan which won a Nobel Prize in 1953.

Granted that while on the one hand, the 1970 publication date of the french version of 'The Empire of Signs' cleanly escapes the confines of these bookends, one must remain mindful that, if we were forced to choose, it would have to be said that Barthes' focus, while at times it does widen to include antibellum images, remains fixed on a Japan of a somewhat earlier era. Ideas like 'camp' (Hi, Susan!), recyclable culture, currationalism, and so on were quite far from dear Roland's mind at the time of this pennings. This being as it should have been, since these forms were not to come into being until decades later. They nevertheless present themselves to us as formidable phenomenon to be pondered.

Even before Roland got here, Isabella Bird had (page #1 | page # 2) ventured forth where no man (or woman) had gone before, plunging headfirst into an very different Japan, and with her own very different observations. Of course, I'm sure she didn't have to worry about paying the rent. I wonder who Roland was crashing with here anyway?


So where were we? Oh yes...BANG, BANG!!! One bang to open Japan to America, one (actually two: Nagasaki and Hiroshima) bigger bang to close it off from being influenced by any country other than the conquering one. Cultural back channels (e.g. Europe and Asia) still existed, but the reality of their relatively sluggish 'bandwidth' as compared to the main lines rendered them, in practical terms, impotent. Thankfully this second bang also seems to have marked a maddening, near-exponential acceleration into a 21st century Japan, which is just getting over acting as if it were suffering from a kind of binge-surge syndrome, finds itself a country that has cast off many of its formerly self-/imposed cultural shackles. Japan is really just now 'finding itself' again for the first time in a long time. But the situation is fragile. Who knows if it will get banged again by American sometime in the near future.

Spontanious, spontanious, spontanious...Sadly, this spirit of self-rediscovery is not pervasive, and in the relm of political ideologies, Japan still may be seen to be suffering from a slave mentality. Iraq is the latest example of this. Incidentally, and I write this with the full knowledge that I am opening myself to the objection of 'attempted political fashion' (like attempted murder), if we are to believe what Camus writes in 'The Fall' perhaps only men who no longer need slaves are truly free.' WOW! Perhaps the best line I've read all week. Reasoning inductively here allows us to form the general principle that America is therefore not free, since it cannot seem to evolve past the master servant co-dependencies that it mostly acts out through the United Nations - a kind of meta-version of what Camus was taking about. That why Germany and France have come out the whole Iraq-thing looking as good as they do. Although I think that the same conclusion may be reached from different lines of thought, I find this one extremely novel, and thus worthy of mention.

Ahem...but now we've come far afield. Too far, in fact, for me to recover with grace.


Well this certainly was a lot of bullshit to go through just to introduce a link.

Go here to get some interesting info on the shitamachi boom and some specific out of the way places to visit. Their Feb. 14th edition will feature one of my favorite places...Shinjuku 2 chome.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?