Thursday, October 14, 2004

Komaba, Shibuya

Found in Translation

1. Komaba, Shibuya

I’m here at Tokyo University as Visiting Professor till the end of the year. My seminar will only begin at the end of the month, so I find myself with a certain amount of time to put down some thoughts in this blog. In the first few days, suffering from jet lag, I arrived at the Department office at 8 a.m. Nobody around. The Department secretaries trundle in at 10 a.m., and leave at 17.30. The Department office is the tea room, the gossip room and the lunch room. The two secretaries are squeezed into a corner. And I wonder about this high tech, workaholic Japan. Will so many of the students I see strolling from lecture to lecture with their designer punk coiffures, or on the tennis courts or the lacrosse field, tomorrow be the besuited “salarymen” I see on the train? Or is Japan changing? Is a new generation going to take it easy and rest on its laurels?

I live in a quiet residential district. House prices are high, extortionate. Streets are narrow, there are few cars, and those that one does see are usually SUVs, BMWs or Jaguars. Stray leaves are rapidly cleared up. In case of major earthquakes we are instructed to assemble at the local junior school. The other side of the railway line is not quite so smart and has the feeling of a neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone else. Schools abound. The Tokyo International School, Komaba Technical School, Tokyo Metropolitan High School among them. All schools have uniforms. The boys wear navy blue blazers similar to mine at King Edwards School in Birmingham. The girls wear miniscule skirts, blouses, cravats, socks, but no high heels or stockings. Primary schoolchildren wear dapper sailor suits or gymslips with 1920 style hats. Everyone travels the train, even the 6 and 7 year-old girls, alone, on their way home, or to cramming or piano classes. Nobody raises an eyebrow.

From Komaba one heads two stops to the terminal station of Shibuya. Shibuya, Shibuya, the junction of five railway lines and two metro lines, bus station, overhead flyovers, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world, where more than half a million souls cross the road everyday to the backdrop of acres of neon, huge five storey high video screens, and the accompanying commentaries in high pitched childlike girlish whines. By comparison Picadilly Circus seems like a village green. After the 1923 earthquake the big stores, Tokyu and Seibu, developed the area, and this explains why you exit the station right through the department stores, the “departos”, and Shibuya thrived. Stores, shops, boutiques, all open till late, bars with names like Insomnia Bar, Black Flys and Joystick, slot machine parlours, fast food joints and restaurants from every corner of the world, love hotels, gentlemen’s clubs, a world of leisure and pleasure, especially for the young, that is, average age something between 15 and 17, who come here to show off their outfits, their hairdos and just hang around, this is Shibuya. But go down the alley to the public garden by the Yamamote train line and you will see the tents of the homeless. All men, fifty or more, drunks, dropouts, Skid Row, broken marriages, couldn’t cope. They eke out a living collecting cans, doing odd jobs, maybe getting state handouts. Their tents of plastic canvas are immaculately tidy. They are a steep above the men who sleep under the bridge. Each has a kind of cot, a 2 metre by one plastic wall surrounding his space. Cecilia Lorschiavo of the Universidade de Sao Paulo has written on the aesthetics of the homeless, including the homeless in Tokyo.

Everyone in Shibuya meets near the statue of Hachiko, the dog. After his master’s death in 1925, he continued coming down to the station every evening to meet him till his own death some nine years later, and was commemorated by a statue. But quieter times, and he didn`t have to find his master among the five million commuters who daily pass through Shibuya station nowadays.


Blogger Marilise Rezende Bertin said...


One has to say the feeling of pleasure while and after having read your blog. I have always appreciated your writing, intelligent, well articulated - if I may call it this way. Full of new information but written in such a peaceful way, do I make myself clear? Like that proverb - Still waters run deep.
Funny, but after having read all I felt extremely timid in writing back. Terribly conscious of how bad I write and how much I still have to improve...
Thank you very much for sending it. Hope to have some more news coming, and, don't you think it's high time you started writing novels? You are clever, write extremely well, have got so much experience! Of life, of writing. I am sure I would be one of your 'fans' and read all your books. And so many other people would read them too!
I loved the title - FOUND In Translation, thank you very much!!

All the best,


October 15, 2004 at 5:15 AM  
Blogger Carol said...

Hi, John. I don't think you know who I am but I know you from translation congresses and events (I was in Fortaleza).
I was delighted to read you post and will look forward for more.
Curiously, I wrote this post in my own blog less than a month ago:
Do you sense any of this "awkwardness" I sense in the modern Japanese identity?
See you around!

October 15, 2004 at 6:04 AM  
Blogger cookie said...

Well, it says Cookie, but it´s Marina, lol
Glad to see you took up a blog. You got to write the Japanese Letters anyway, ehhehe! Did you meet Marianne?

October 15, 2004 at 7:30 AM  
Blogger Marilise Rezende Bertin said...


I find this beautiful passage extremely appropriate to your new experience there in Japan. I am sure Glauco would agree with me!

"It is therefore, a source of great virtue for the practised mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The person who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong person has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his."

(by Hugo of St. Victor, a twelfth-century monk from Saxony. in 'Freedom from Domination in the Future' - Edward Said)



October 15, 2004 at 8:38 AM  
Blogger Terry said...

Hello John
Very pleasant to read your blog and your impressions of Tokyo, a city I visited for one day and one night, in 1977. Keep posting and keep informing us...
H.Terry Crispin
Jucesp 991
Translator and Conference Interpreter
São Paulo, Brazil

October 15, 2004 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger Monica-PTA said...

Hi John,
I didn't know you were in Japan (last time we saw each other I sensed you needed some changes)I am glad to hear you are.
It's was very nice to read your blogg.

I am still in Pretoria, and probably will stay for the next 3 years, and still at UNISA, working for 2 departments now. (Modern Languages and Nursing Science). Joao is posted back here and is home since June.

I hope you really enjoy your stay there.
I will keep in touch,

October 15, 2004 at 8:38 PM  
Blogger ludovicuscarolus said...

hello, john

glad to know you're feeling your way around in a pleasant, almost zen-like way. a funny thing happened. now it's 3.40 and i've just come home from a bibulous night. i decided to check your blog (of all things you might have done!) and send a comment... and couldn't. this insidious site made me follow some criptic and laconic instructions and suddenly i found out i had a blog too. since i have it, i'll use it ('when i itches i scratches it') the name of the thing is 'ludovicus carolus' (if i knew i was enrolling for a blog it should have been 'ludovicus carolus avaricensis', but since it's done it's dunce). i must say i was rather disappointed with your first batch of photos, since i was expecting a bit of tea ceremony, sushi and sashimi bits, origami pieces, and all that kyoto kind of stuff. anyway, that's it. best wishes. drink sake, but don't forget your green tea. cheers.

October 15, 2004 at 11:41 PM  
Blogger ludovicuscarolus said...


'when IT itches, i scratches it' (correct english, please!!)

ludovicuscarolus (with no space in between)

October 15, 2004 at 11:59 PM  
Blogger bianca g said...

Olá John!!!
Seu texto é "deliciante"! Com todos esses presentes para os olhos acho que você deve estar a mil...
Bem... acho que aquela cerveja definitivamente vai ter que esperar... (hahaha!)
Já muitas saudades por aqui!
Beijo grande e muito boa sorte na sua nova aventura!

October 18, 2004 at 7:58 AM  
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October 27, 2005 at 11:52 AM  

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