I used to keep an apartment in Tokyo. I love Tokyo. Imagine a huge amusement park, like Six Flags or Disney World, with roads and an underground. That’s Tokyo. Or that’s the feeling I get as I stroll through it. It’s a visual feast of the cute and the quaint and the just plain odd; I get the feeling that it is all one big ride for which the longest queue would be worth enduring. Whenever I’m there, I approximate the cliché of a Japanese tourist, constantly lifting and pointing my camera with the easy fascination of a child on his first visit to Disney World.
You aren’t buying the surreal scene I’m suggesting? Okay, fine, let me give you an example. I will tell you about frog boy. I met him one day while strolling through Shibuya. Shibuya, for those of you unfamiliar with Tokyo, is the home of a scramble crossing that is said to be the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. You’ve all seen pictures of it because no photo journal or video of Tokyo would be without a shot of it. It is estimated that about 1000 people enter the crossing each light change, and, though I haven’t sat down and done the math, I would guess the total number of people that use the crossing each day would be enough to start a small country. It was shortly after riding one of the perpetual waves of humanity through this intersection that I saw frog boy, and I guess the obvious place to start is by saying he was green. He was green from top to bottom, from front to back, and from shore to shining shore. The outfit he was wearing was reminiscent of Robin Hood’s garb, complete with a little feathered hat like the one Errol Flynn wore, except that the shoes, which curled up at the toes, seemed inspired by a jester’s motley. You might decide from this description that, apart from his greenness, he looked quite un-frog-like, but he had finished off his ensemble with a most dissonant accessory, a pair of bubble-lensed goggles that, because they were so unexpected, became the focal point of his garb and effectively made him look like a frog…a frog cast in the part of Robin Hood, wearing jester shoes. And, oh, here’s the best part. He was window-shopping at a sporting goods display. Now I ask you, who wouldn’t be fascinated by such a place? At Disney World, you click pictures of Mickey Mouse, in Tokyo, it’s a 6-foot frog shopping for a tennis racquet. I love it. Click Click Click…I’m taking pictures…Click Click Click…And don’t give me that look…You dress like that, I’m taking your fucking picture! And such sights are not rare. Moments later, four college students dressed in combat fatigues and helmets crawled past me on their bellies. At first, I thought it was some sort of initiation, but then I noticed some equally militaristic characters walking behind them handing out flyers for an anti-war stage production. Standing to one side and laughing at the ridiculous belly-crawlers was a boy wearing motorcycle leathers and a scuba mask. Could any scene be more surreal? Click Click Click.
Here’s my version of a pop-up: Click to see photos of SHIBUYA
I should point out that Shibuya is a most fertile ground for such bizarre scenes. All of Tokyo tends to the fantastical but Shibuya excels at it, mainly by virtue of being dominated by hormone-driven youth focusing their creativity on attracting the opposite sex. It is home to no less than six universities, three of which are all female, so the high ratio of females acts like a penis magnet for boys from all the other Tokyo wards. Well, you have to figure if a guy can get laid wearing a scuba mask as a fashion accessory, it must be every teenage boy’s idea of heaven—bring me your weird, your dysfunctional, your virgins. But it is unfair to say that hormones are solely responsible for the youths’ quest for attention. Perhaps, more simply, it is just plain rebellion. In Japan, being different is a very un-Japanese thing to be; children are taught by parable that the stake that sticks out gets hammered down. But “sticking out” is exactly what the current youth movement is about, and they are insolently spurning their elders’ admonitions to be good little ants. They don’t want to fit into the cookie-cutter rank and file and disappear into a unified Japanese identity, they want to “stick out” and be noticed. And in that atmosphere, the weirdest squirrel gets the nut—or the weirdest nut gets the squirrel, as the case may be. And nowhere does the competition to be the weirdest get weirder than the Harajuku district of Shibuya.
Harajuku abuts Shibuya proper, and, in contrast to the collegiate crowd of frog boy and the belly crawlers, it is the stage of the lissome and epicene youth of high school. They come out in force on the weekends, bedecked in frills and frippery, all appearing to be dressed for a costume gala. The city blocks off Omotesando, the zelkova-lined main road leading away from Harajuku Station, and a giant street party ensues. Apart from the youth, there are myriad performers displaying myriad talents. All the usual suspects are present, including mimes, musicians, and magicians. I will never forget one particularly bizarre mime that was always present back when I frequented the area. He—I say “he” but the whiteface he wore created an androgynous effect so it may have been a she—balanced on ten-foot stilts. He (or she, or…it) was draped in a white dress-like garment that reached the ground and concealed the stilts, and on his head was an exaggerated version of a dervish’s sikke. And, come to think of it, a dervish is pretty much what he looked like, a whirling dervish with an overactive pituitary gland. Except that he didn’t whirl. He just stood in prolonged, statuesque poses. I personally didn’t get it, but I was ever so curious if it was a boy or a girl. I was tempted to go peek under his skirt to check. Click Click Click.
Another regular of the Harajuku scene at the time—and still are, I understand, though sometimes they do their thing up in Yoyogi Park—is a group of rockabilly greasers who sport ducktails and pompadours and dress in black leather and denim a la Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones.” They play 50’s music over a sound system and dance their rockabilly hearts out. And they do it for hours. A large crowd inevitably gathers, which, it can only be said, is testament to how easily entertained are the Japanese. Me, I do my Click Click Click and turn my attention to the real attraction of the street, which are the youth and their avant-garde frippery. I plop myself down at one of the alfresco coffee shops along the sidewalk and watch as they strut up and down like peacocks, showing off their plumage of innovative fashion.
And innovative they are. Something that many people don’t know—brace yourself—is that Harajuku is perhaps the single most important spot in the world of fashion. Fashion designers from all over the world hire photographers to camp out in Harajuku on weekends to snap photos of these strutting avant-gardists. Twelve months later, some of the ideas discovered in those photos will appear on the runways of Milan, Paris, and New York. Yep, I’m not having you on, the youth of Harajuku are the trendsetters of the world, and, in Japan, there at least five major fashion magazines that focus solely on them. Scary isn’t it? Or not. I’m ambivalent. For me they are just part of Tokyo’s circus atmosphere. I could smile, snicker, and Click Click Click at them all day.
A weekend in HARAJUKU
On a weekday, OMOTESANDO looks like this.
On the far side of Harajuku Station, in historic Yoyogi Park, the party continues. Besides being a favorite destination of picnickers, sunbathers, and B-boys, the park is a favored busking ground for musicians. And many of them are quite good. Some of the biggest artists and bands in the Japanese market were discovered playing for coins in the park. Some have even done well on the international market.
You will also see a lot of martial arts clubs practicing in the park. Evidently, as I was told by more than one Japanese friend, many of the guys into Japan’s martial-arts scene these days are gay. “They like it” was all the explanation I ever got. Of course, I knew that homosexuality was common practice among the samurai class once upon a time, but I don’t think this is an extension of that. I think that today the appeal is more a combination of the gay community’s affinity for physical fitness and their desire to be able to protect themselves against bullies. And this assumption was backed up by a scene I was lucky enough to witness one evening in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. I was sharing a basket of takoyaki with a Japanese sweetheart on the curb of one of the many narrow walking streets that are so common in Tokyo when along came a group of five loudmouth, and a little drunk, American rednecks. Walking toward them from the other direction was a stunningly pretty boy who looked and dressed like Miyavi-san (pics below).
Knowing how low a group of loudmouth American rednecks can stoop, I braced for the show and prepared myself to be thoroughly embarrassed by my nationality. Sure enough, as the boy neared them, one of the rednecks stopped in an aggressive pose, snorted contempt, and remarked, “Look at this faggot!” I grimaced and blinked…and during the short amount of time that my grimace and blink took to complete, a Bruce Lee moment had left the loudmouth American sitting flat on his ass and trying to shake his eyes back into focus. His friends stood mouths agape and watched as the angel-faced androgyny straightened his cuffs and continued indifferently on his way. I watched him disappear with admiration, and, I must admit, feeling somewhat aroused.
Click to check out YOYOGI PARK
Click here to see MIYAVI
EXTRA: You absolutely MUST hear this: Miyavi’s slap technique (Allow me to introduce you to some Japanese talent)
AND I can’t resist adding this iconic video (This is Kabuki Rock folks): Neo-Visualizm (I particularly like how he incorporates tap dance into the beat. There is a lot of English in this song, but Miyavi’s enunciation makes it all sound Japanese.) I was lucky to discover a HQ version of this video, but the other video on the page is a poorly mixed cover. Don’t waste time listening to it.
And then there’s Takeshita Street. Whereas Omotesando is an architectural showcase and home of many flagship stores of the upscale fashion market, Takeshita is a pedestrian-only side street that is crammed with cafes and boutiques and fad shops. And the fad shops offer some hint as to what is really driving the bizarre fashion parading around Omotesando. Many of them are what are called “antennae shops” and their purpose is to test market fashion prototypes. Manufacturers will seed these shops with some strange new product, as they did a few years ago with those dreadful six-inch platform shoes, and if the Harajuku youth fancy the item, the way they oddly fancied the six-inch platform shoes, they will soon be incorporating it into their personal wardrobe and subsequently photographed walking down Omotesando wearing it. A year later it will be a worldwide fad. Remember those clunky platform shoes that swamped the market a few years ago? You could always tell when a girl was nearby because there was no way to walk on the things without sounding like Frankenstein. And they were dangerous. Girls spent more time in emergency rooms getting ankles wrapped than they spent upright on the damn things. The shoes were patently ridiculous, and, ultimately, we owe them to the antennae shops.
The fad shops are a major part of Takeshita’s appeal, and a trip to Harajuku isn’t complete without giving it a stroll, although on the weekends it is so crowded on the narrow street that walking from shop to shop resembles a contact sport. Let’s put it this way, strolling down Takeshita through the weekend crowd is as close as I’ve ever come to group sex. And that is fine, mind you, far from me to complain, but I have more than once left Takeshita feeling dirty and used. And, no, that is not why I recommend it so highly. I recommend it because, well, some of the shops there are incredibly bizarre. Where else, I ask you, can you find a hot-red storefront with a sign above the door that reads The Tabasco Store? There’s no way I’m going to pass by without going inside to see how a shop can stay in business selling nothing but Tabasco. As it turned out, they weren’t selling Tabasco so much as they were selling cute. Yes, on their shelves was every size and flavor of Tabasco sold both on Earth and Mars, but the shop was mostly cute bric-a-brac such as Tabasco themed ceramics and stuffed toys. I bought a red magic marker shaped like a Tabasco bottle. Yes, it’s true, and I am truly ashamed. In fact, it was when I got back to my apartment and looked down to see the Tabasco marker that I realized I may have been in Japan too long. It was clear that my brain had been subverted by the Japanese to be unable to resist anything remotely cute.
Click here to see a weekend in TAKESHITA
I guess I should explain this further because the importance of “cute” in Japan is integral to understanding the, well, theme of this theme park atmosphere in Tokyo that I have been so keen to show you. Let me explain it by saying that there are only two words that any visitor to Tokyo need learn: kawaii and sagoi, which mean “cute” and “wow” respectively. In my observations, these are by far the two most frequently used words in the Japanese lexicon. You will hear them constantly and often together. I warn you, however, that being too close to Japanese women when they say kawaii may cause permanent damage to your hearing. When excited, they tend to pronounce the word as ka-wa-iiiiiiiiiiii, ending in a high C that can shatter glass. A young teenage girl caught me off guard one day at a supermarket with a ka-wa-iiiiiiiiiiii and the tomato I was testing between my fingers went everywhere. And, of course, that gave her ample reason to gasp “Sagoi!”…which she did. But what you must be wondering is what could possibly be in the produce section of a supermarket that could move a person to squee in high C. Well, here’s the answer: in Japan, pretty much everything. In this case, it was a cute cutout of a smiling carrot hanging above the vegetable bin. Cute, you see, is the sine qua non of marketing in Japan, and if it weren’t the anthropomorphized carrot, it would have been any number of other point-of-sale cuteness within view. Quite succinctly, Japanese marketing 101 can be distilled into the following sentence: if you have a product that is cute or can be packaged or advertised in some cute way, it will sell. As you can imagine, the stuffed animal market in Japan is booming. And you can see how this preoccupation with wowing people with cuteness helps to create an amusement-park atmosphere. I mean, seriously, where else but in some surreal carnival-like reality could you walk into a supermarket and find a guy in a bunny costume selling sirloin steaks? Japanese women will spy the bunny, let out a whooping “Sagoi,” run up to pinch his cheek while emitting a high-pitched “ka-wa-iiiiiiiiiiiiiii desu ne!”…and then buy whatever that bunny rabbit tells them to buy. I witness scenes like this and feel like I’ve died and gone to Disneyland.
But here I was becoming just like them. I had always in the past been an observer, watching with some sense of detachment, but as I looked down at this silly Tabasco curio, I was suddenly reminded of that song by the Vapors about “Turning Japanese,” and I realized I was, not to put too harsh a point on it, becoming too easily entertained. Had I been in Tokyo too long? At the very least, I had been there long enough that the strangeness had ceased to be strange…I hardly took notice anymore when a human-sized squirrel sat next to me and asked for a light, for example. And here I was looking down to see a magic marker disguised as a Tabasco bottle and thinking “Sagoi! Ka-wa-iiiiiiiiiiiii desu ne…I absolutely must have it!”
Of course, that isn’t such a bad thing, but just as the world one encounters in a theme park isn’t real, one must never forget that the Tokyo that meets the eye isn’t real either. It is superficial, a quixotic diversion from reality. So perhaps I had been there too long. I mean, a theme park is a great place to visit and have a bit of fun, but you don’t want to live in one. Too much of it and the brain starts to acclimate to the silliness and forgets where the stage begins and ends; one can very easily lose touch with reality. And though I’m aware that I might be exaggerating and pushing this point a tad too far, I also feel there is some real truth in it as well. Look at how the Japanese are so sucked in by the show. You have marketers pumping out cuteness to sell things that aren’t even remotely cute. An animated chipmunk with a wispy tail could convince the Japanese to get their rectums sandpapered…and pay a hefty price for the pleasure. I shouldn’t have to stress how such a misinterpretation of reality can result in a rather rude awakening. And yes, okay, I’m being hyperbolic, but on a quite serious note, consider how the rebellious youth can find the expectations of the establishment and their yearning for individualism at odds and extremely difficult to reconcile as they prepare to enter the rank and file of the “salaryman.” It’s been my observation that reconciliation often takes place in a bottle. And let’s not forget that the suicide rate in Japan is astronomical. Tokyo—the Tokyo that shows a happy face; the Tokyo that I love so much—is sterile, safe, and fantastical, but it is also artificial and at odds with the hard-biting reality of life outside the theater of the Big Top. It is easy, too easy, to forget that the fairytale appearance of Tokyo is just that, a fairytale.
But so what, right? Yes, Japan is a killjoy bully hanging stubbornly onto a feudal past replete with outdated social hierarchies, but I am convinced that the youth are eventually going to win the battle.
[And if you don’t believe the feudal system is alive and well in Japan, consider how as I was about to sign the papers to rent an apartment there, the agent looked over and sheepishly informed me that I was expected to give an extra month’s rent to the landlord to “thank him for allowing me to rent his property.” It was not a deposit that I would get back when I moved out, it was, as he explained, a “gift” and was part of their feudal traditions. Well, I thought about that a moment and understood clearly that I was, in effect, being put in my place. And, as you can imagine, I found it insulting. I will never forget the look on the agent’s face when I informed him that was not going to happen. “You tell the landlord,” I said, “that I will tolerate his rack-renting and include a deposit that he will return to me when I move out, and I will even be so gracious as to not require that he come to thank me for renting his property.” The look of horror on the agent’s face was priceless. Needless to say, I made an enemy of that landlord, but it was entirely worth it. And I did eventually find a landlord of a younger generation that didn’t think of himself as an actual “lord.”]
Japan hasn’t been the same since its doors were opened to the west, and change has accelerated as access to western ideas and media has increased. The feudal system, like a theocracy (more than like a theocracy, it was a theocracy since the emperor was once considered a god), is a system of suppression and control, and one easy to maintain when Japan was cut off from the world. Give people the scent of freedom, though, and change is inexorable (which is why Muslim reactionaries like the Taliban are so adamantly against education outside of madrasas, I might add). And what better way to style a revolution than as an assault by carnival. As many sociologists like to point out, Japanese culture is far more motivated by aesthetics than the West, and this, there is no other way to put it, is revolution by aesthetic. I think everyone will agree it is decidedly better than revolutions of the head-thumping variety. In time the idealism will be blunted by pragmatism and the carnival-like atmosphere will likely subside, but the end result will be a Japan in which both individuality and diversity will be valued instead of frowned upon. I do admit, however, even though I realize it is somewhat selfish of me, that I hope the change takes a long time to actualize. Why? Because the party that is the Tokyo of today is just too damn fun to want to see end. I am quite willing to suspend disbelief and ignore the underlying tensions as long as I can go to Tokyo and buy sirloin steaks from fuzzy bunnies, see a frog window shopping, snigger at outlandish and sometimes ridiculous fashion, and find a little store devoted solely to a brand of hot sauce. It is simply an experience one cannot pass up.
ENCORE: I’ll let Miyavi-san sum up life under the Big Top. “What a Wonderful World” (Notice that the Bruce Lee moment in this video is directed at a rank-and-file mannequin, one devoid of face, identity, individuality.) I found this video after I finished writing this piece…Imagine my surprise by its video imagery. As Miyavi says, “Check it out….”
[I dedicate this post to Caroline Smith, known on Twitter as @casoly. Despite her Smithiness, she is also half Nihonjin, or Japanese. After getting to know her on Twitter, I get the feeling that had she been raised in Tokyo she would have been one of the delightfully goofy youths parading around Harajuku. I picture her as a cute yellow duck shaking her tail feathers and batting long ducky eyelashes at the boys. Click Click Click]