Tuesday, February 01, 2005


Midnight on Thursday night at Akabane Station on the Utsunomiya Line. After a night’s hard drinking with workmates, the salarymen tumble out of the sardine-packed carriages. They are at various stages of inebriation. Some rush to the Gentlemens’. Some don’t make it. Some lucky ones are held up by their workmates. Some sink into in a stupor of fresh vomit. One starts running wildly around the station platform, dancing up and down the stairs, The same situation can be found at many stations,

Yamanote line:
Songs, jokes, laughter, reeling drunks.
Tomorrow’s far off.

For alcohol is the glue that binds together Japanese society, the loosener of formality, the path to intimacy and friendship, the force behind major decisions, the balm after a day’s drudgery, the thread that knits long-lasting relationships, the escape from home and family.

Just a few office ladies amidst the drinkers. We are still in a land where there is a vast difference between the lives of men and women. “It’s a woman’s job”, says one of my Department’s secretaries about the part-time job she has. Women earn much less than men for the same work, and are generally content to do so. They are rarely promoted. Few women occupy important academic positions. And hardly any do so in the business world. Many give up work after marriage. It may not “look good” for the wife to work.

Despite the fact that some 40% of 30 to 40 year-olds in Tokyo prefer to remain single, there are still social pressures to get married. Matchmakers, nakodo, are still very active, and arranged marriages, omiai, are quite frequent; my 28-year-old friends tell me their mothers have encouraged them to get in touch with a nakodo. And the world of Junchiro Tanizaka’s The MaKioka Sisters, a biting satirical novel, by a bitter Jane Austen, which satirizes the snobbery of a decadent upper-class family in the 1930s, who desperately try to find a suitable husband for Yukiko, threatened with being left on the shelf, has not yet completely disappeared. The MaKioka family name must not be sullied, and detective agencies are put on the trail of all future candidates. Such detective agencies still exist.

But life is not so bad for women. Men still hand over all their pay packet to the lady of the house and in return get a little pocket money. The clientele in Los Toros Spanish restaurant in Ginza on a Saturday lunchtime is 90% female. Groups of friends, old school pals reminisce away Saturday afternoon while the husbands are putting in an extra day at the office.

I watch again Lost in Translation. I recognize the Hyatt in Shinjuku and the view over Yoyogi Park and Meiji-Jinja Shrine and the huge video screens in Shibuya. Harris and Charlotte are lost in Tokyo. They are puzzled by the Martian-like behaviour of this pygmy race. Japan and Japanese are strange and weird. Communication is minimal. Harris is surprised by an unexpected pseudo-S&M visitor sent to his hotel room: “Lip my skirt!”, and we are back in the corny jokes on the mispronunciation of r and l: “Loger Moore”, “The Lat Pack”, “Brack Tie”, “Frank Sinatola”.

The food is impossible: “What kind of restaurant is it that makes you cook the food at the table?” Contemporary Tokyo is no more than kitsch: Japanese men are called Charlie Brown and Hans; it is the traditional Japanese Suntory whisky actor Harris is earning a fortune to promote. I remember an audition in Sao Paulo when I unsuccessfully tried to make a similar fortune. Only the actress Evelyn Waugh seems to be content in Tokyo.

A chauvinistic film which looks down at Johnny Foreigner and shows only Americans can have any deeper feelings. Or a satire on American narrow-mindedness? Or two people lost in a crazy big city?

Near Ueno Station I see three junior sumo rikishi wrestlers out shopping. They are easily recognizable not just because of their bulk but also because of their hairstyles. They look cold in kimono and slippery sandals, but their clothese are regulated by their “do”, the prescribed form of life of a sumo wrestler, the do, which regulates all aspects of the rikishi’s life.

Clip-clop of sandals,
Bulk, kimono, oiled hair:
Rikishi pass by.

The cold air over the Sea of Japan picks up moisture and deposits a metre of snow on the North coast of Japan. But Tokyo, on the southern coast, is dry and cold. A thousand miles to the south-west, the cherry-blossom buds will soon be visible. But I shall not be there to see them.