Comic books and electronics. Costumed kids and well dressed suits. Free Hugs, albeit often from kids born around the same time as the iPod, hanging out on the streets wearing hoop skirts, manga costumes and nose-obscuring bandages. Often simultaneously.
I’ve spent several weeks in and around Tokyo over the past two visits, including side trips to nearby towns and a bullet train to Kyoto. Interesting and accessible culture, beautiful sights, great food. Somehow it all works, and I find the youth culture—in a country with a birth rate just this side of the Vatican—quite fetching. So cute. Even the prostitutes wear outrageously fancy dresses, like Little Miss Muffet dressed for a remake of Gone With The Wind.
I imagine giant container ships in San Francisco Bay, now emptied of their Toyotas and riding high like Borg cubes upon the seas, setting sail from the Port of Oakland to carry back to Japan all of the once-worn U.S. prom dresses, freshly cleaned and pressed and ready to highlight the tiny waists of the evening girls in the Kabuchicho red-light district, who stroll up and down with parasols in front of the dive bars, just down the street from the glitter and glow of the multi-story, smoke filled Pachinko parlors.
I declaim to the warm Kabuchicho night air an impromptu street haiku:
wearing prom dresses
red lips on alabaster
Six or so of us were in Tokyo doing research on a then-upcoming version of Adobe Flash Professional. It’s the sort o’ management thing I like to do between all the writing, sleeping, fathering, spousing and carousing. Tokyo is a wonderful city to visit. If the world hadn’t ended last year in an economic catastroclysm I’m sure I’d be heading there again soon. But what with the banks all ablaze, the polar bears melting and all of the swine coming down with New AIDS (or is that New SARS? I really can’t be bothered, though everyone keeps trying) it doesn’t look as though I’ll be headed to Japan again soon.
But the trip was fascinating. In the mornings en route to meetings, we headed upstream like salmon returning to spawn, through the glorious Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world, through which nearly four million people travel each day. The press of the crowd is unbelievable, rivers of humanity flowing to and fro with astonishingly little friction, endless schools of self-synchronized minnows describing an intricate dance.
We all remarked on it: it’s unbelievable that so many people can move through this space at once without causing the world’s worst human gridlock. Were this anyplace else, people would be stomped to a pulp twenty times a day, like a never-ending Wal-Mart on the morning of the Black Friday sales. But people in Japan are not built that way. They move quickly through Shinjuku, but don’t shove. They don’t cut each other off. They don’t jockey for position as they queue up for escalators. They’re polite to one another at the turnstiles. It’s downright freakish.
The invisible little devil on my shoulder—who is, I should note, generally balanced out by another devil of roughly similar mass on my other shoulder—whispered in my ear and I started to grin as we headed through the morning crush. I was walking at the side of the lovely Emmy H, and we were talking about the experience of being there, in this surging sea of rapidly moving politeness. So unlike the States, and probably anywhere else.
I noted that even when we drifted briefly out of our flowing river and into a mass of people flowing in the counter direction, we still avoided accidents. “It’s amazing we can get through this crowd without hitting anybody.” Emmy said something about Brownian Motion as I pointed out the seeming impossibility of our little group making such rapid progress moving amid hundreds of thousands of others, all heading in different directions.
“Let’s do an experiment,” I said.
“What kind of experiment?”
“Well, I bet that if you and I move a few steps to our right, directly into the path of the oncoming flow, we won’t run into anybody even if we don’t look where we’re going.”
“How could we do that?”
“Simple,” I said. “We’ll just carry on a conversation and look each other in the eye as we walk, and be completely oblivious to the million other people walking straight at us.” Emmy demurred at first, but the thought had stuck in my mind with little fishhooks and wouldn’t let go. “C’mon, it’ll be fun.” She agreed, under duress. I have an a-hole’s idea of fun, sometimes. Decidedly not Japanese.
Our course set, we waited for the briefest of lulls in the crowd. We started talking animatedly and eased rightward, away from the rest of our companions and directly into the oncoming path of the multitudes, but ignoring everyone except each other in our conversation. The tension was high: it wasn’t easy to keep walking at a brisk rate while failing to look ahead, and we laughed nervously as we talked about nothing at all while assiduously avoiding looking anywhere other than at each other. On and on we walked, maintaining a rapid pace with both our feet and our conversation.
Not once were we stopped, shouted at or denounced by the crowds, the omnipresent loudspeakers or the giant, talking billboards. We never came within more than a few feet of any other traveler. It was like we possessed an invisible force field that radiated out ahead of us in a wedge pattern: the crowd smoothly and seamlessly parted for us without a trace of effort, merging together just behind.
We repeated the experiment over the next day or so, with the same results each time. Ugly Americans, perhaps. But hey! Anyone could get caught up in a conversation, right? It’s only ugly when you know we were pranking. Now, I don’t recommend this behavior in others, of course. It’s just like what they tell you at the National Parks: if everyone took home a pretty, shining rock, pretty soon there’d be none left.
(That was the National Park Service that said that, right? Could have been the time I saw the British Crown Jewels. Anyway, same concept.)
I tried the same trick again in a different train station. Didn’t work. I was in New York, walking through Central Station during the morning commute. In under three seconds, I was shoved to the ground, kneed in the groin and trampled to death while buskers from Trinidad played a rousing funeral march on the steel drums. After a while, someone came and helped themselves to my wallet. In the evening, a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic in search of the American Dream came with a pressure hose and washed the remaining blood stains into a drain while she whistled a popular merengue from her youth.
My body was never found.