Frozen in Time

“Tokyo looks like people imagined the future in 1985,” my husband said as we strolled through Yoyogi Park in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood. Glancing at the concrete skyscrapers surrounding the park, I could see what he meant. Everything in Tokyo seemed frozen in time, a kind of modernism reminiscent of sci fi movies from 30 years ago. Instead of the airy glass and steel buildings characteristic of other Asian cities such as Bangkok and Singapore, heavy grey office towers dominate Tokyo’s skyline. The subway system is vast and efficient, but lacks the digital screens found in the subway stations of other modern metropolises. At night, Tokyo’s sky is illuminated by the neon corporate logos of technology giants past: Panasonic, Sony, Canon. Seeing them made me think for a moment of sunny childhood afternoons spent listening to Michael Jackson tapes on my electric blue Sony Walkman.

“When you look closely, you see the decay everywhere,” said Brian, the American corporate lawyer who had moved from Hong Kong to Tokyo seven years ago. According to him, Japan’s façade is crumbling — literally and figuratively. “Japan’s economic growth has been stagnating for years, so they don’t have the money to fix anything,” he claimed. Once he had mentioned the lack of funds for modernizing Japan’s infrastructure, it was hard not to notice the imperfections. Dirt stains on building walls, taxi drivers riding around in Toyota Crown Comforts from the 1990s, and long lines of people waiting at the ticketing booths of overworked Japan Rail agents. The stagnation seemed to extend to social norms, too. When we had dinner with Riccardo, a business school friend who had spent several years working in Japan before moving to Switzerland and just happened to be in Tokyo during our stay, he told us the story of a corporate modernization initiative that caused much marital strife by upsetting longstanding social conventions.

According to Riccardo, one particularly innovative Japanese company had decided a few years earlier to start transferring employees’ salaries into their bank accounts digitally rather than handing out envelopes with cash (as had been the norm for many decades). While this seemed to be a safer and more efficient way to pay the company’s workforce, the executives seemingly hadn’t taken into account one consequence of this change. Traditionally, Riccardo explained, Japanese men hand over their salary envelopes to their wives, who give the husbands “pocket money” and keep the rest of the salary to take care of savings and household needs. Sneakily, though, Japanese men had always taken out a little bit of money for nomihōdai and other pleasures before handing the envelopes to their wives. Now that the salary was being transferred in its entirety into the couple’s bank account, the wives started wondering why the amount was all of a sudden higher than the amount they had received in cash for years. Many nasty fights and some divorces ensued, and the company had to reverse its modernization initiative and start handing out envelopes with cash again so that future employees wouldn’t be affected.

Riccardo’s tale is emblematic of a larger trend in Japanese society. Despite efforts by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to create more opportunities for women, inequality between the sexes is deeply ingrained in this traditional society and the gender gap has proven hard to narrow down. “Men and women lead very separate lives here,” Riccardo explained. He must know — he’s been married to a Japanese woman for several years. “When my wife gets invited to the wedding of one of her friends, she goes with the girls,” he continued. “Just because she is invited doesn’t mean that I am.” Indeed, once I started paying attention, the division became very obvious. Japanese salary men were drinking together in the city’s many izakayas after work without a single woman present. The women could be found mostly, it seemed, in fashionable boutiques shopping for luxury brands, often with little children in tow. Yet, there was also the very drunk and very rowdy group of Japanese that included both young women and young men who seemed to have a blast downing sake at 35 Steps, a smoky izakaya which owes its name to the 35 steps one has to take into the basement of Shibuya’s City Hotel to reach it.

This is the thing about Japan. It confounds expectations. One night, we all gathered at Brian’s apartment to celebrate his birthday. At 60 square meters, this slice of real estate was a true luxury for Tokyo. Most of the city’s inhabitants live in far smaller apartments and contend themselves with odd living room / kitchen and bedroom / bathroom combinations designed to utilize every last inch of space in this overcrowded metropolis. After drinking several bottles of red wine in Brian’s living room, his friends — mostly other American lawyers — decided that it would be lovely to treat the birthday boy to a dinner of pulled pork and chicken waffles to celebrate the occasion. A short cab ride in a Toyota Crown Comfort later, we found ourselves at Soul Food House, a small restaurant atop a narrow Azabu Juban shop house that was bustling on a Saturday night. We made ourselves comfortable at a large corner table and LaTony and David, the restaurant’s owners hailing from Mississippi and Georgia, respectively, heaped generous portions of Soul Food House’s most popular dishes onto our white porcelain plates.

Several pulled pork sandwiches, chicken waffles, and fruit-and-bourbon Hurricanes later, almost all other guests had left and David grabbed the microphone installed next to the tables for the restaurant’s regular Open Mic Thursdays. He pulled out a laptop and turned on a projector. Five minutes later, we were all crowded around the mic, Germans, Dutch, Americans, Thais, and Japanese, belting out “Killing Me Softly” (the original Roberta Flack version). Our eyes were trying to follow the lyrics projected onto the wall while we were each doing our best to hit the right notes, and there was laughter and missed beats and beautiful singing (which, I will admit, was mostly thanks to David). In that moment, we felt part of a community, a crowd of global cosmopolitans seeking adventure and success and love and understanding, by going abroad and making a life in strange but enticing places far away from home. Beneath us, outside of Soul Food House’s windows, was a sea of skyscrapers and small apartment buildings, some of them housing Tokyo’s infamous love hotels. While we were there, in the warmly lit restaurant, hugging and singing soul classics, Tokyo’s forlorn souls were seeking never-ending love in 70s era kitsch rooms paid by the hour.

The next night, my husband and I visited a temple in Ueno at night while it was raining. We were the only people walking towards the temple at that time. There was a dystopian quality about the wet black street leading to the empty temple grounds, wedged in between high-rises adorned with huge blinking neon signs. It made me think of Blade Runner, the space ships floating in between skyscrapers in the rain. Given that Blade Runner was made in 1982 and depicting the future in 2019, perhaps this was fitting. As my husband remarked, there is something about Tokyo that is reminiscent of visions of the future from 30 years ago. You can still imagine it, the exuberance, the enthusiasm, the belief that great things were about to happen. But these sentiments seem to no longer exist. Instead, Tokyo’s residents seem to have a resigned determination to carry on, slogging away each day in their beautiful, weird, crumbling metropolis.

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