The sunlight is pink now. It’s 5:23pm and as the sun sets on the brick building across the street, the world glows petal-pink through the still, sheer white curtains. No wind stirs, but the temperature has dropped many degrees since last week and it’s cool inside. Tokyo’s perfect today, even in the swirl of the realization that perfection’s a myth.
It’s been exactly two years since I moved to Tokyo, and one year since I moved into my apartment in Kabutocho. Each day I like and dislike Tokyo more and more. An uneasy ambivalence, as an ambivalence must be. The city has gotten under my skin, like an unshakeable influenza.
1) In the early morning, when the sun creeps over the river, or in the evening, when the streets are quiet, I ride, for hours, all over town: Monzen Nakacho, Ryogoku, Akihabara, Ueno, Asakusa, Ojima, Toyocho, Toyoso, Odaiba, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend or two, and the thought comes, “It’s so safe here; so calm, so convenient, so very easy, how could I live elsewhere? Where will I go?” The river’s on the left and “the wind’s beside me,” and as hours turn into more hours, I feel this is “home.”
2) Tokyo isn’t “home” and can never be. (Feelings skim surfaces, and are fleeting.) After two years, I can navigate the city, the back streets of East Tokyo; I know how to get to Kiba in ten minutes from Nihonbashi, but I know next to nothing about Japanese people and little about Japanese ways. What I hear from my students about “Japanese life,” and often what I see, I wish and choose not to believe, because it’s disheartening. (Disheartening because I’d subscribed to an image and the reality is far different. The fact is, it’s just like anywhere else, in some ways better, and in others, worse.) It seems something’s lacking. Perhaps, because I don’t speak the language, I’m missing the profundity that is Japan.
At the moment, I see gloss, drinking to excess, working to excess, consumerism, conformity, hear and see stories of abuse, and I wonder if this is all there is. There are rules everywhere– many culturally and self-imposed, and a seeming, mild depression among most people in daily living, despite all the conveniences. However, I’m not Japanese and can’t expect it to be all things– or anything– to me. When my complaints ring louder than praises, it’ll be time to move on; yet, the question remains, “To where?”
3) MD said Tokyo’s “too comfortable.” According to him, a life without discomfort and “disruptions” isn’t worth living. He puts himself in the way of danger, as often as he can, all the while spouting his discomfort theory, which I’d contradicted; but, now I understand what he means. This life, here, is a cocoon. A comfortable “Otherness.” Imagine you live in a country where you don’t speak the language, can’t understand most of the signs, and people behave in a way completely unlike what you’re used to. It’s surprisingly liberating and freeing, because you don’t have to care, don’t have to listen, don’t have to try to understand. You can shake your head and say, “I don’t speak Japanese,” even when at times, you understand. It’s too comfortable, and living in a bubble isn’t living.
Students always ask, “Why’d you come to Japan?” There’s no good answer, should I direct them to the very short decision-making process conducted on this blog? They want a good answer, a well thought out answer, along the lines of, “I love Japanese culture,” or “I’ve always been fascinated with Japan and wanted to learn Japanese;” but, I can’t tell them those things, because it isn’t true. I’d no clue about Japan, never really thought of living here ever before and have had great difficulty in trying to motivate myself to learn Japanese. What brought me here except chance, a wish to be somewhere new, and a desire for change? So, I say, “I love Japanese food.” Is that enough of a reason to pick up and move to another country?
I didn’t come here for any special reason, but I love many aspects of it and have stayed longer than intended. When it’s time to leave the pink light behind, the clean streets of Nihonbashi, the smiling service people, the swelling, then sleeping river, the in-season treats, and the countless other things that make Tokyo special, what will I say? I don’t question what I’ll feel, because I know my feelings, like tides, will come and go.