Tokyo

Any discussion of Tokyo begins with ginbura. To ginbura is to bura bura in Ginzato wander about aimlessly, to simply stroll around town and enjoy oneself. This carefree spirit of wandering, of pointing out the little absurdities of everyday life separate the native Edokko with tourists from abroad, who admire Ginza’s impressive red brick structures and Japan’s fast modernization. The ability to criticize and laugh at the solemn monuments of a city is a privilege held only by its inhabitants.

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Unlike other cities of its size, Tokyo has an empty heart. Marunouchi, the traditional center of Tokyo, has almost no traces of its glorious history left. The Imperial Palace stands sunken and empty, a lonely patch of green surrounded by mountains of skyscrapers. Tokyo Station, one of the few remaining buildings from before the war, looks strangely dated― not historic, simply dated.

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Edokko are strangely ignorant of their own history. The names of their environs confuses them the same way they confuse tourists. Few understand why places like Ochanomizu or Takadanobaba have such names. When speaking of Kokubunji, they shake their heads and ask themselves why a place with no temple would be named after a temple, never wondering about the possibility that, at some point, there might have been quite grand a temple which existed in their neighborhood. Instead, they wonder why Kokubunji is so named, despite the two characters alone being read Kokubu. Edokko do not take ownership of their own past― presumably, everything was cleansed and washed away in a maelstrom of bombs and fire.

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Like the residents of any city, the denizens of Tokyo shake their heads and laugh at the absurdities of modernity. They wonder to themselves why it is that the “Tokyo Waterfront New Transit Waterfront Line” couldn’t have been called anything less grandiose or ridiculous. They laugh too at its nickname― Yurikamome― as it is certainly strange to name a transit line after a small water fowl. These are questions tourists have no time to ponder. They ride the Yurikamome, the Tokyo Waterfront New Transit Waterfront Line, or whatever else they want to call it (the “monorail”, the “L”, the “train”)― as long as it gets them where they need to go. With no time to ponder the absurdity of names and planning, they see these tools of transport as simply that and nothing more. But the people of Tokyo, the Edokko, certainly have a stake in this discussion. Is it not natural to begin wondering about things one has taken for granted once enough time has passed? “Why is it that Manhattan is called ‘the City’ when Brooklyn and Queens are still part of New York City?” “Who decided that all of Beijing’s highways should be concentric rings?” It is result of long years of repetition, something that one begins to consider when one has too much time on their hands.

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The grand monuments of modernity are nothing more than an eyesore to them. They are new-fangled monstrosities of steel and cable, with no ties to history and no significance to their lives. The SkyTree is an object of scorn, not of pride. They shield their eyes away from it and look away, muttering under their breath about the beauty of the Tokyo Tower, that old trusty friend on the skyline who has been replaced by an ungainly gray behemoth. In the face of the new, Tokyo Tower seems to have taken on a new significance, suddenly becoming everyone’s favorite landmark overnight. “Now that the tourists can look at something else, we can reclaim what’s ours,” the Edokko seem to say.

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Yet at the same time, the Edokko are painfully uncomfortable with their own past. They remember glory days, built upon a house of cards. They recall in whispered voices their foolish hubris that allowed them, ever so briefly, to taste supreme freedom and opulence. An age where every peasant became a king, every peon a capitalist. That age was not truly theirs. It belonged to a group of people who no longer exist. People will speak of the Bubble Age as if it were something they read in a book in the “Current Affairs” section of a sleepy little second-hand book store― not something they actively participated in and became a part of. Much like the firebombing of Tokyo purged the Imperial City, so has the coming of poverty and stagnation destroyed the opulent dreams of the Edokko. They remember both cities as equally far away, equally alien― relics whose proper place are in museums, and not in their own memories.

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Yet ultimately, this is their city. They know it better than anyone else on Earth. They alone have the privilege of mocking its monuments and sneering at its absurd place names. The Edokko understand Tokyo in its entirety― the grand temple at Asakusa (whose name, Sensouji, seems to make no sense); the large red gate they call the Kaminari Gate (though Raimon would be an equally understandable pronunciation); the Turkish immigrants selling döner kebabı in Akihabara; the floods of Chinese and Korean immigrants, whom they all look down upon; the pleasures of a small neighborhood ramen shop, serving simple, healthy and nutritious fare; the Tokyo Big Sight, that awkward inverted pyramid and the throngs of social mis-fits that descend upon the site every half year; the often-empty halls which still put on kabuki and rakugo performances for aficionados of a bygone age; the bars and clubs of Shinjuku, in all their seedy glory; the drunk salaryman, urinating on the side of the street before passing out in a pool of his own piss; the hostess girls, hungry not for sex but for cold, hard cash; the hipsters in Harajuku and their gravity-defying hairdos; the Yurikamome (and its official name, a closely-guarded secret of the Edokko);  the maids in Akibahara, always flirting but always keeping customers at arm’s length; the statue of Hachiko in front of Shibuya station, whose story they all know; the opulence of Roppongi, and the uncomfortable hubris it represents; the Yamanote, Chuo and Tokaido lines, the circulatory system of the city proper; Ochanomizu, Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-Gyoenmae, and every single Musashi― no matter how difficult the name, they know the pronunciation by heart; Tokyo Station, with its strangely out-of-place Dutch-inspired facade; and Marunouchi itself, an empty green circle, the vacant heart of the city, surrounded by a jungle of steel, glass and concrete― they understand all of these things. They take pleasure in them. Though they may seem to mock them, it is out of love, not hatred, for it is their city, and should anyone else slander their city’s honor, they will defend it to the death as the greatest place on Earth.

And so, as they ginbura along, pointing out the immigrants, the tourists, the buildings and everything that is both good and flawed, we know this all to be a labor of love. This is their home. Their only home.

With thanks to Bitmap.

One response to “Tokyo

  1. This post is seventy-three sorts of wonderful. Seventy-four, but I haven’t yet gotten the image of Hachiko out of my mind. I recall a wonderful day that I spent all to myself, I foolishly thought to take a picture of myself in front of the statue, but little Hachiko was already huddled within the masses of people who were looking to do the same. He was like an idol of sorts, which fills me with uncertainty as to how the social meaning of the term and its literal meaning take on the same truth in this particular case. At that moment of hesitation, I instead took to a nearby coffee shop that overlooked the intersection. I took particular pleasure at taking in the sight of the giant mass that moved back and forth whenever the scramble light went on.

    Reading this piece certainly takes me back, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me the opportunity to do so. I really need to go back again one day.

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