TGJA – Chapter Eight – The Dull Roar of Foreign Culture

Who is that there making this sweet music and dancing its slow waltz? Is it a orchestra on a grand stage? Is it the world-renowned Bolshoi ballet company? Nay! ‘tis but a lowly janitor and his floor polishing machine dancing, their labor of love trampled by the million-masses behind them. Each dulcet tone of this sonata appassionato wasted on us all; struck by morning blindness, deafness, and abject apathy. Still the man, in his lowly station, polishes ever more – undeterred, undaunted, to stop – unthinkable.

As I have said, everything (or at the very least all things worth having) in Japan makes noise. Whether it be the voice of a cartoon character yelling at high pitch and still higher volume to feed the arcade machine to which it is bound or a lorry which, quite without the need for assistance from its driver, lets you know with a cheerful warning that it is turning. Air conditioners, refrigerators, scales, doors, telephone, and yes… floor polishing machines – everything makes noise, ranging from “Swan Lake” in the case of the latter, to the indecipherable and incessant nagging of the cartoon characters. I have come to two hypotheses as a result of this constant acoustic bombardment.

Hypothesis #1:

The Japanese are a reserved, polite, and naturally shy people. By having their appliances make noise for them, they no longer have to. An agreeable trade-off for most Japanese, or so it seems. (I refer you to the fact that even at rush hour, not a word is spoken by anyone but the train staff and the machines)

Sidebar: Many verbal commands and warnings, such as: “watch your step” and “please be aware,the doors are closing” could well be left to automated messages (and indeed are in many places) but are performed at disturbing frequency, entirely live, by a person. It seems then that sometimes it is permissible for a machine to speak to us (and by us I mean Japanese people and foreign people who speak Japanese – ergo: not me) whilst at other times, and for reasons unknown, a person is required to inform us of these things. Please see ‘Hypothesis #2’ for further explanation.

Hypothesis #2:

Despite their contributions to philosophy, Zen, and other silent pursuits, I think a great many Japanese would go utterly mad should their senses be deprived of the noise that saturates Tokyo. It is disconcerting enough to be somewhere alone for most people, but to have something taken away which is essentially a part of every waking moment, is inconceivable. The noise is like background static on a radio, it is always there – a constant companion, however far your mind pushes it aside. It would seem then that a Japanese home would be a sound-proof refuge from this daily onslaught, a haven of silence. Oh contraire. The air conditioning unit above my bed speaks to me as a any girlfriend might: sweetly, with a cute Japanese voice, which sadly I do not understand. The refrigerator and the door are home to two women who are all business, in the ever-respectful manner of a well-trained Geisha. I find it all quite unnecessary, quite overwhelming, and shocking at times. The Japanese seem oblivious to it all.

It is not that without the automated warnings, chimes, and jingles the Japanese would suddenly be prone to fallen off of train platforms, getting stuck between doors, or running into floor polishing machines. No. It is just that these noises have become so ingrained in their mind as part of the experience that to omit them would be unnatural. Thus, I maintain, without these constant voices and noises, a Japanese person, even one in Tokyo with its 35 million inhabitants, would feel utterly alone. Eventually, perhaps in hours, perhaps in days, it would drive them insane.

Time has come to talk about the big issues. Thus I suspend for a moment the fluff with which I fill many of these pages, compose a serious face and similar attitude, as I endeavor to tell you all about Japan’s national sport and favored pastime: baseball.

Baseball has become so big here since its introduction by the Americans, who also brought guns and Christianity to Japan (though irrevocably sensible people as they are, the Japanese opted to keep the guns and forego the religion), that the word itself is written in Hiragana, not Katakana in which the names of all other foreign things are written. Baseball is to the Japanese what the soccer is to the Europe and cricket is to India, Pakistan, and some other places. (Australia beat England by 246/4 and I know what that means!) Baseball, in short, is a sensation here. Being a Tokyoite myself these days, I have been asked many times if I am a fan of the Tokyo Giants – the resident major league team. “Why yes of course,” I always dutifully answer with the stern face of a North Korean proclaiming victory in the name of the great leader, “I never miss a game.” All lies of course as I find baseball to be almost as boring to watch as curling, and maintain the sport would be vastly improved by the addition of the pinball concept of ‘multi-ball,’ but one must play the part. In truth, I do catch some games on TV and took an immediate liking to a Giant’s pitcher named Takahashi. He is a man who, from his lonely place on the mound, can stare down would-be hitters to the extent that when he throws a pitch, they are left standing there blissfully unaware of the world around them, blankly staring at him as though mesmerized by voodoo magic, as the umpire does the “three-strikes-you’re-out!” dance behind them.  Takahashi is, to use a colloquialism, ‘the man.’ Sadly, no sooner had I taken a genuine liking to the game and even remembered a player’s name (a necessity when questioned about your favorite team!) and Takahashi-san said his goodbyes to his Tokyo Giants in favor of the American Major League. (You may know it as the World Series and would be forgiven for thinking it to be an international affair, which it is only in the sense that a few Cubans and an odd Dominican play in it after having washed up near Miami) So, I fear that though the Japanese are still elated with their victory over South Korea in an epic best-of-seven play-off, I myself have once again lost interest in the sport. Thus I am once again resigned to deflect baseball questions with “I very much enjoy all Japanese endeavors,” and “of course I am a Giants fan! Who isn’t?!?” whilst trying to summon all the fake enthusiasm I can.

I have talked before of Japanese fashion, and in many cases, the disastrous lack thereof. Some of the trends I am seeing on the kids in the streets these days are not at all Japanese however. Rather, they are japanesified western trends. One of these, and the one of which at first I didn’t realize it was an actual conscious fashion savvy choice is the man-shirt-dress. Now if that sounds confusing to you, and I might be forgiven for thinking it should be, then let me explain.

In the west, when a girl wakes up at your place and wants to go walk around she will from time to time reach into your closet and put on one of your button down/dress shirts to cover up. This works because the shirts are silky soft, obviously too big, and thus act as a comfy embrace that covers just about all the right areas depending on how crazy you go with the buttons. Now then, the Japanese girls have seen this, done this, and made it into a fashion trend which transcends the domicile of their love interest. Rather than pilfer men’s clothing stores, or their boyfriend’s closet for these shirts however, the Japanese fashion industry has introduced button down shirts for women which are essentially an odd mix between a cocktail dress and a dress shirt. Often blue or striped, these dresses compensate for the smaller frame of Japanese women by fitting properly near the torso and then flaring out a little near the hips, the tips of the shirt/dress/thing thus covering what little a miniskirt would with the added benefit of a high hip cut. It is entirely unapparent (to me at least) what is worn beneath. It could be extremely shot tights, leggings, or even shorts, but I assume as per the example of the miniskirt, the next progression of clothes would be unmentionables. Whatever the case may be, it is still quite surreal to walk down the street seeing mostly salary men and women dressed in their black suits and then stumbling across a girl with the ‘just fucked’ look and nothing on but a button down shirt. It is like walking on to the set of “Pretty Woman” except there are a whole bunch of Japanese tourists there who got lost. Perhaps the influence Julia Roberts has had on the Japanese transcends her acting. I can only speculate.

Almost as prevalent as the scooter-delivery-things I discussed earlier, are bicycles. Bicycles are ridden by all who cannot afford a motorized vehicle as well as those not wishing to mingle in Tokyo traffic, and are a constant nuisance. For starters, many elderly people ride bicycles on the busy sidewalks of Tokyo with presumably poor vision, little regard for the safety of others, and despite many years of practice, absolutely no clue as to how to steer. This situation is made more hazardous still by the refusal of Japanese people to pick what side they want to walk on. On most subway stairs (and indeed many of the more narrow passages) directional arrows litter the floors and thereby make it obvious where one should walk. Tokyo traffic drives on the left-hand side and indeed people will pass you on the escalator on the right side, but on the sidewalks of Japan’s capitol, chaos rules. My host mother, an elderly lady herself, insists on riding her basket-equipped bicycle everywhere we go, whether it be just down the street or more appropriate bicycling distances. She is no Lance Armstrong either, and despite warnings from us, “her boys,” she crashes into people and stationary objects alike with alarming regularity. None of this seems to faze her (or the many other sidewalk sidewinders, as I have taken to calling them), as these small crashes are apparently a perfectly acceptable way to come to a stop. The Japanese, normally an extremely polite people, will not excuse themselves if their bicycle plows into an unsuspecting pedestrian, or crushes a few toes either. Obstacles are met with panicked faces and jittery steering, sometimes without actual course correction, and pedestrians are used mostly as slalom practice. In addition, God help you if you detain a bicyclist longer than he or she deems acceptable – seldom have I heard Japanese lose their temper, but bicyclists, so it seems, are tremendously high-strung people.

Japanese television, in stark contrast to the television programs I am used to, abounds with seemingly childish decors, oddly dressed presenters, and hordes of celebrity guests who, quite simultaneously, answer questions about their private lives as well as any questions related to the show. The concept “variety show” encompasses the entire gamut from slapstick humor and physical challenges, to semi-intellectual debates, quiz shows, and of course, Japanese-style open forum shouting matches (often with colorful and quite insane characters). It is these variety shows, which are distinguishable from the news only by lack of news, as they are both clad in bright yellows, pinks, and stylized Kanji, that I truly enjoy. The ability to speak or read Japanese is usually not a requirement to understand the limited depth of these shows, and the sheer volume of celebrity guests ensures there is always at least one pretty girl on screen to stare at whenever the conversation picks up and my understanding of the events lets me down. Moreover, the questions asked of contestants in most of these shows are prominently displayed on your screen so you can feel like part of all the excitement at home, and are of a level that most elementary school students could probably understand. Nevertheless, comically wrong answers abound, and the guests seem to squabble more than partake in the planned activities making for decidedly good television. Favorite guests include sports celebrities (notorious for knowing lots about how to hit a baseball and absolutely nothing about anything else) as well as pretty girls whose ‘fame’ is often due more to their beauty than any particular talent. (Please don’t write me and yell at me about how politically incorrect that is – I am sure there are a great many women in Japan who are spectacularly gifted as well as radiantly beautiful. All I am saying is that those women do not appear on variety shows) Male contestants meanwhile spend a lot of time talking very loudly and making wild gestures which seem only loosely related to the events taking place. As far as the questions are concerned, nothing will stir up both the contestants and the crowd more than one of the beautiful female contestants “going public” with her engagement to some man. Should this happen in a show (as it frequently seems to do) count on all planned activities being side-lined in favor of shouting matches and indeed crying over the fact that such a beautiful girl has become unavailable. The hosts are not exempt from this behavior and are usually quick to ask a myriad of questions regarding the qualifications of the groom to be so fortunate as to have so beautiful a fiancée.

The more physically oriented shows are no less amusing. One of the very first variety shows I bore witness to featured a floating pontoon trail, composed of several hundred pontoons no more than 50 centimeters wide. The objective was to ride a bicycle from one end to the other where fame and glory, however temporary, awaited the valiant contestants. Needless to say, though many tried, few succeeded. One especially satisfying failure was a rather heavy-set man who, prior to his run, spent the better part of five minutes discussing tactics with the show’s host. Having decided that speed and focus were the keys to victory, he mounted his bicycle, took steady aim, and rode his bicycle off the platform and straight into the water, missing even the first pontoon. When asked the reason for his abysmal performance (which drew loud cheers from the gathered crowd along the embankment) he replied simply: “I took off my glasses so they would not fall in the water.” The laughter immediately subsided as the host adopted a grave face and proclaimed that to have been a wise choice, in reference to the man who made it almost the full 300 meters to the other end and did a face plant at 296 meters only to lose his glasses in doing so.

For fear of rambling on and on (and it is possible to ramble yet for quite some pages) I will say only this: Japanese variety shows are hilarious – as a spectator sport, television gets little better than this.

Finally, Tokyo, being an especially busy city, plays host to a vast army of delivery vehicles of every size and type imaginable. One of these, a one-man scooter-like contraption, is unique to the streets of Tokyo, and indeed synonymous with my new home. Almost all are white, though dirty, and not quite as tall as a person. They are commonly fitted with either permanent or detachable storage compartments just behind the driver, some big enough for family-sized pizzas stacked skyscraper-high whilst others can bear little more than a few side dishes. Whatever the case may be, and whatever precious cargo they may buzz across town, the first thing I noticed about these ‘scooters’ is that the engine is actually a small box with two tiny wheels which is mounted way at the back and underneath the driver’s (at times semi-enclosed) capsule. This configuration allows the driver/rider (I still do not know which is appropriate) to lean into corners whilst the engine and drive wheels stay firmly perpendicular to the road – the aim of course to increase the speed with which corners can be negotiated, thereby cutting delivery time. I am uncertain as to the specific angle to which these little machines can pivot on their directional axis, but I have yet to see a delivery man fall out of, be flung from, or flip his little scooter, so we can only assume safety margins have been implemented to prevent truly spectacular cornering. A great pity, as I am passed by a few hundred of these white death-traps walking to and from the subway every morning and every afternoon, and the suffering of others can be extremely amusing. But I digress, the point of all this is to illustrate that not all cultural differences need be shocking or based on miscommunication or perception. The Japanese delivery scooter things (their proper name is unknown to me) are the equivalent of Vespas with pizza boxes strapped to them in Italy, bicycles with baskets in the Netherlands, snow scooters in British Columbia, and of course the Ford V8, extended bed truck used to deliver the same pizzas at 8 miles to the gallon in the US. The scooter things are as common a sight here as rain is in Seattle and darkness is at night, and they are yet another example of something, though odd to me, must be so mundane as to be all but invisible to the Japanese themselves. It is for that very reason that I enjoy them so much, like the demon crows, and the silent subways, it is all part of the great Japanese adventure.

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