Tokyo on One Cliché a Day

From Earthquakes to Video Games
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 17 2003 1:31 PM

Tokyo on One Cliché a Day

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Today's slide show: Monkeys and machines.

It's Cliché Grab Bag Time!

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson
Seth Stevenson, a regular contributor to Slate, spent two months in Tokyo on a media fellowship from the Japan Society.

Japan Cliché No. 5: Earthquakes

I had my first earthquake a few weeks ago. It measured 5.0. A little bit fun, a little bit frightening. I'd always imagined earthquakes were a slow, rolling undulation. Turns out they're more of a sharp, violent jerking.

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When it hit us, all the gaijin in my building stumbled into the hallway looking nervous. Emergency fire walls had slammed shut on every side. I tried to remember if doorway arches were the absolute best place to stand, or the absolute worst place to stand, or neither. Then one gaijin suggested we go to the lobby, so we formed a single-file line and marched swiftly down the stairs.

When we got to the ground floor, I expected to be met by rescue workers with reflective space blankets. Instead, we saw Japanese people chatting calmly, reading magazines, and seeming not to have noticed the recent, demonic upheaval of the very earth they stood on. Absolutely no acknowledgement of the earthquake. No joke, there were children playing Twister in the lobby, completely unfazed.

What's the ruling when you're in a precarious Twister position, and then suddenly an earthquake hits and you topple? Do you lose? Or is there an act-of-God provision in the fine print of the Twister rule book?

Japan Cliché No. 6: Confusing, Incestuous Politics

The ruling party here is the Liberal Democratic Party. There are two major opposition parties: the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party. If I'm reading the newspapers right, these two opposition parties will soon merge. I don't envy the voters here.

Japan Cliché No. 7: Xenophobia

OK, not the most welcoming society for outsiders. And less diverse than a Division III college in Maine. But nearly everyone I've met here has been extremely enlightened and progressive and tolerant and stuff. With two exceptions:

1) At a party, I met a Japanese man who is a retired sixtysomething former VIP. We got to discussing geopolitical history. At one point in the conversation, he leaned close and, in hushed tones, said, "The Koreans, North and South, are a people entirely without scruples."

2) There is a famous military shrine here at which Class A war criminals, like Tojo, are buried. The Japanese prime minister is impelled each year, by public sentiment, to visit this shrine and genuflect and such. Not a fantastic thing, in my view, but perhaps understandable.

Next to this shrine is a military museum. Of all the museums I have visited in Japan, including the A-bomb museum in Hiroshima, this was clearly and easily the best-funded. It expresses a vision of Japanese military history that differs, in certain crucial ways, from our own.

For instance, I was not aware that the United States had somehow tricked Japan into bombing Pearl Harbor as part of a complex scheme we had been brewing up for years. Also, I was not aware that the Rape of Nanking never happened.

Interesting thing about this museum: Every World War II battle is extensively examined, mapped, and explained with both graphics and text. Right up until the Battle of Midway. At this point, the displays quickly peter out, and the text boils down to "mistakes were made."

Outside the museum, ultra-right-wing groups have stationed fleets of big black vans with blaring megaphones. I'm told what they are shouting translates as "Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarian." On their roofs, the vans have big plastic replica missiles with the rising sun flag painted on the fins.

Japan Cliché No. 8: The Land of Cute

Of course there are all the cute characters like Astro Boy and Hello Kitty and Sirotan and the robot panda. But do you realize how cute the idioms and conversational interjections are? For instance, Japanese people answer the phone by saying "Moshi Moshi!" This is the most fun thing to say ever. I could say this all day. Moshi Moshi!

Also, when you say something that Japanese people perhaps did not know, but now believe to be true, they will often respond by saying "Ahhh, so-so-so-so-so-so-so-so-so-so-so-so-so-so." Say the sos as fast as you possibly can, and you will approximate this sound. I can't get enough of it.

Japan Cliché No. 9: Extreme Harmony

Despite its 14 million people, Tokyo is the quietest city I have ever lived in. In two months, not once have I heard a horn honked in anger or frustration. I'm convinced this is the most culturally foreign aspect of Japanese society. When is the last time you went four minutes in New York without hearing some aggressive honking?

Only once did I hear a Japanese person raise his voice in the heat of conflict, and this immediately occasioned profuse and deep bowing from everyone around him, embarrassed by his loss of control.

Japan Cliché No. 10: Incomparable Arcade Games

I have become addicted to an arcade game here. I'm not sure if it's come to the States yet, but if not, I hope it comes soon. This game consists of a display screen, two large kettle drums, and two pairs of tethered drumsticks. A song plays through speakers, and complex instructions flash on the screen, directing you to play specific beats in time to the song. Sometimes you hit one stick at a time, sometimes you hit both at once, and sometimes you need to hit a rimshot. Sometimes there are drum rolls. Sometimes the song is "Y.M.C.A.," by the Village People. And sometimes, when you play the two-player version, the game offsets your beats so you and your opponent form polyphonic rhythms—beautiful teamwork amid cutthroat competition.

I am incredibly good at this game. If it didn't cost 200 yen a pop, I would play all day every day, because I am so good that it is a waste of my gift not to play.

After the first few times I played, a strange new screen began to flash after nearly every game. I could not figure out what this screen was at first, because it was in Japanese. Then I realized: It was the high-score screen. I was setting new high scores every time I played. You could tell because it was asking me to select three kanji characters, and then these would display next to my score at the top of a list. This was deeply satisfying, because it demonstrated how beautiful was my gift. It was also deeply frustrating, however, because I don't know how to write "ASS" in kanji characters.

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