I’ve been coming to Tokyo since 1991 or so, and while Japanese culture is often called insular and set-in-its-ways, the changes have been dramatic.

The market at Asakusa

Gaijin · There are so many more foreigners now than then, and they seem better integrated. Instead of the baffled-looking businessman sweating together in twos and threes with the locals routing round them, you see slackers on the subways reading manga and banging away on their keitai, generally being ignored, part of the urban landscape.

It’s rare to spend five minutes on the street anywhere in central Tokyo without seeing faces that are pale or black; or often you’ll be in a crowd and realise that the Asian-looking people dressed to you, who look and are dressed just like everyone else, are talking something that’s not Japanese. I’m not 100% on spotting those languages, but I distinctly heard some Mandarin and Cantonese; the ones I didn’t recognize could be Korean or Vietnamese or anything else really.

Less Different · The appearance of more foreigners is just one aspect of Tokyo’s gradually become more like the rest of the world. On much of the public transit, the announcements and electronic displays are bilingual (Japanese/English) now. There are concessions for the disabled; ramps and elevators and toilets and so on.

Busker near Shibuya

Finally, and my second-favorite new thing about Japan, is the decline in public smoke. In lots of parks and restaurants and bars now, you just don’t smell much smoke. Non-smoking seems to feed on non-smoking, based on the experience in North America, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this snowballs.

Women · The biggest change, to my eyes, is the way the women look and walk and talk. When I started going to Tokyo all those years ago, I was on a business commute that took me back and forth between there and Hong Kong. It was painfully obvious; the Hong Kong women were glamorous and strong and aggressive and sexy, in Tokyo they were mousy and dowdy and girlish and boring. Dress came in three flavors: schoolgirl, housewife-bland, and office-bland. Almost every woman I saw was an OL.

I don’t know what’s happened, but the Tokyo street-scene has become as style-intense and full of eye-candy for the hetero male as anywhere. I saw some astounding fashion statements, here are a few that stuck in my mind: denim layered on brocade layered on filmy taffeta or something; long black vertical tunic with amazing crimson slashes; fluffy hot-pink sleeves emerging from a green camouflage vest.

None of this would work if the women weren’t walking boldly, smiling broadly from time to time, and generally looking strong and sure, which I saw a lot of too. Some were going for whimsy, some were were going for grace, some were going for raw sex, and a lot of them had their looks working just right.

The men were less successful; some were making an effort too, but without creative flair, doing Beatnik or Hipster or Rocker or Armani pretty well straight up, not much individual style.

The women are mostly absent from the geek culture I was in, but that’s a problem in lots of places. Japanese culture has long been brutally chauvinist towards women; I hadn’t heard that life is getting better for them, but based on what I see just walking around, I wouldn’t be surprised; you can’t really look good unless you feel good.

東京 Out · This is the end of my ongoing fragmented illustrated essay about Tokyo. I’ll find a way to visit again before too long.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Dr Nic (Jun 24 2007, at 13:53)

Thx for the "ongoing fragmented illustrated essays about Tokyo". I thoroughly enjoyed them.


From: Janne (Jun 24 2007, at 17:18)

I've talked about this with a friend (who is Japanese, female, in her late 20's and lives in Tokyo so she should know). According to her, this change in attitude coupled with the lack of corresponding political change - the political realm is not exactly a hotbed of radicalism and progressive thought in this country - probably explains a good deal of the low birthrate.

The basic problem is that many younger women want to have a career, a working life, but many institutions in the country are still heavily stacked against. The assumption is that a woman will be a housewife, so day care is rare and expensive (and all but unavailable for infants). Maternity leave (to say nothing of paternity leave) or taking half a sick day for an ill child is nonexistent. The husbands'/boyfriends' workplace is another obstacle, with work structured around the implicit assumption that there is a housewife in the background providing constant "ground service"; an unmarried salaryman will in fact frequently find themselves under a career disadvantage. So women have to make a much starker choice of family or career, and understandably a good deal end up delaying child birth for their career.


From: Adam Hupp (Jun 25 2007, at 00:19)

Regarding the Tokyo street style, you should check out Fruits. It's a photo book of amazing Tokyo street fashion.


From: Lars Marius Garshol (Jun 25 2007, at 00:49)

I wonder if Asian people in the streets speaking something other than Japanese really is something new. Japan has had a significant Korean minority for many decades already (I forget how many).

While you may not speak a word of Vietnamese and Korean it's easy to tell the two apart by sound, since Vietnamese (like Mandarin and Cantonese) is a tonal language and Korean (like English and Japanese) is not.

Anyway, thanks a lot for these mini-essays on Tokyo. They were much appreciated.


From: Danny (Jun 25 2007, at 01:28)

Thanks Tim, first-class travelogue, very enjoyable & educational.


From: Andrew (Jun 29 2007, at 15:48)

Tokyo fashion was definitely an unexpected surprise for me as well when I visited. The fondness for clothing with tortured English phrases on them were particularly amusing/interesting. After a while I started writing them down, my favorite I think was a tight black t-shirt worn by a girl getting off the back of a motorcycle that read "Hang on for Grim Death".


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