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.
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.
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.