A Tokyo Romance

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The visual density of Tokyo was overwhelming. In the first few weeks I just walked around in a daze, a lone foreigner bobbing along in neatly dressed crowds of dark-haired people, taking everything in with my eyes, before I learned how to speak properly or read. I just walked and walked, often losing my way in the maze of streets in Shinjuku or Shibuya. Much of the advertising was in the same intense hues as the azure skies of early autumn. I realized now that the colors in old Japanese woodcuts were not stylized at all, but an accurate depiction of Japanese light. Plastic chrysanthemums in burnt orange and gold were strung along the narrow shopping streets to mark the season. The visual barrage of neon lights, crimson lanterns, and movie posters was matched by the cacophony of mechanical noise: from Japanese pop tunes, advertising jingles, record stores, cabarets, theaters, and PA systems in train stations, and blaring forth from TV sets left on all day and night in coffee shops and restaurants.

Ian Buruma’s observation about his first time in Tokyo in 1975 was one of many that resonated with me when I read A Tokyo Romance. It could just as easily have been my own description of the city two decades later when I first wandered around Tokyo’s streets alone in a kind of hallucinatory daze, uncomprehending yet stimulated by the seemingly endless stream of sights, sounds and movement around me. Buruma’s book unlocked a nostalgia in me for those sensations, ones that cannot be relived; I’ve become all too familiar with the city—and it is not the same city that I, or Buruma, first encountered. It’s still a beguiling place, but with its prevalent foreign-language signage, tourist information booths and money exchanges; its proliferation of international tourists and workers; its imported and home-grown global brand stores and ubiquitous Starbucks and McDonalds outlets, it has in this more globally connected era at least a veneer of familiarity, even for the first time visitor.

But there was something theatrical, even hallucinatory about the cityscape itself, where nothing was understated; representations of products, places, entertainment, restaurants, fashion, and so on were everywhere screaming for attention.
Chinese characters, which I had studied so painstakingly at Leyden University, loomed high in plastic or neon over freeways or outside the main railway stations, on banners hanging down from tall office buildings, on painted signs outside movie theaters and night clubs known as ”cabarets,” promising all manner of diversions that would have been hidden from sight in many Western cities. In Tokyo, it seemed, very little was out of sight.