(This essay was originally written for publication in Hayakawa's SF Magazine in Japanese translation. As it's been out for a while now, I thought I'd share it with my anglophone readers ...)
I'm British, and I've visited Japan twice: first in 2007, and more recently, in 2010.
On my first trip, I thought I knew what I was seeing. The second time: no, not really. I've given up. I can't get my head around a nation with thousands of years of history and 120 million people in one month, or two. I probably couldn't do it in one year or two; not without a grasp of the language that I will never have. On the other hand, I can pick up some random fragments of broken glass and peer into them. Probably all I'm seeing is a mirror on my own misconceptions, but if I'm lucky, they may turn out to be fragments of a hologram.
The obvious, and the non-obvious
On my first visit, I immediately latched onto the aspects of Japan that any first-time anglophone visitor with an SF habit will recognize: "they've got our future!" It's not the shiny future of jet packs and food pills we were all promised in the 1950s, but the other stuff — express trains that run on time and accelerate so fast they push you back into your seat like an airliner on take-off. Skyscrapers with running lights, looming out of the sodium-lit evening haze — a skyline just like the famous nighttime scene from Blade Runner except for the shortage of giant pyramids (and they're building one of those out in Tokyo bay). And shaved cats.
This stuff is impressively alien if one is jet lagged and has just flown in from Scotland, where houses are made of stone and frequently have battlements, and we only discovered fire three weeks ago. But it's superficial, and in any case, it's temporary. As William Gibson wrote, "the future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed". In the future we will all have shaved cats. And six story high pornography boutiques that sell Hello Kitty! novelty toys on the ground floor. And 200mph super-express trains blasting between arcologies through a landscape scorched by the waste heat of a hundred million air conditioning units. Not to mention beer vending machines on street corners. These things are a given because the future has thousands of little legs and it likes to spread itself around.
If you take away the future, what makes Japan different?
In a word, history. The present is a moving boundary, travelling from the past into the future — what lies behind it is history, and the further it goes, the more history we have. When we try to peer into the future to see where we're going, as often as not we're peering into a driver's mirror, watching the past unroll behind us. To understand a culture's future you must look at its history — for the history people have experienced defines the future they want.
The Death Star, four hundred years later
One sunny spring day, my wife and I went for a short walk through Tokyo. Starting from our room in a business hotel between Kanda and Akihabara, with a view overlooking a construction site bursting with excavators and cranes, we hiked into Nihonbashi and then Marunouchi. Actually, we didn't plan this — our original plan involved a monorail (I am married to a fellow future-junkie, one of whose eccentricities is a bad monorail habit) — but for convoluted reasons that seemed to make sense at the time we needed to find a particular bento seller for lunch, and by the time we got there they'd sold out, and it was a hot, sunny afternoon.
As the subway station we needed to get to in order to travel to the monorail terminus was a half-kilometre walk away, we took a shortcut through the plush-looking park on the way, only to find ourselves in the imperial palace gardens on the site of the former Edo castle.
I think we left five minutes before closing time. Bad SF author: no monorail!
The emperor's gardens are marvelous and graceful and spectacularly well-planned: it would be astonishing if they were anything else. But what held my attention were the brutal bones of history concealed behind the neatly manicured shrubs and beautifully organized trees. It took a while to come into focus: we had walked part way around the inner ramparts when I remarked "this place is on the same scale as the Tower of London," (which, if you aren't familiar with it, used to contain a small town with its own streets and a population of around 20,000). My wife looked at me as if I was simple-minded: "no, this is much larger." She was right: what I'd mistaken for the outer wall was in fact the inner keep. We were inside the outer wall already. In fact, the outer walls enclosed an area nearly the size of my home city, Edinburgh: not merely the walls around the mediaeval Edinburgh Old Town, itself a walled city, but modern Edinburgh. Home to half a million souls.
Continuing around the ramparts, we came to a gate house. Steeply inclined stone slopes twenty metres high defined the walls. A side-street branched off uphill through a wide gap in the walls, rising steeply and curling out of sight behind the wall. As I walked up the ramp, the outer path swiftly vanished from sight behind me: surrounded by walls to either side, my skin began to creep as I imagined what it might have been like to approach this citadel when it was a functioning castle. To be out of sight of the road means to be out from the covering fire of your fellow soldiers: overlooked by walls to either side means that you're under the fire of the defenders. Put it all together and you have a titanic castle with inclined stone ramparts twenty metres high backed up by rammed earth; ramped entrance roads (overlooked killing zones) that curve round at the top to confront gate houses (also killing zones): and guard houses originally manned by hundreds of samurai at each gate.
It took hundreds of thousands of labourers several decades to build this complex, a castle the size of a city — a castle containing a city, a castle with an outer perimeter 16km long. The labourers of the Tokugawa shogunate and their masters may have lacked modern technology, but it was no less a monumental program for that. To find engineering projects of a similar scope today one has to look at enterprises on the scale of the Apollo program. No military fortification on the scale of the Edo palace was to be built in Europe until the age of steam.
Why did they do it?
Japan, as it entered the Tokugawa period, already had a population comparable to the whole of western Europe. Labour was not in short supply. Nor was motivation. This is the kind of fortress you find when you go looking for the imperial military headquarters of a dictatorship that finally triumphs after two centuries of total conflict. It's vast, and cruel, and terrifying. It says, "never again will I tolerate the existence of enemies". To the feudal lords whose families were held hostage there, it was a million-ton steel manacle on their ambitions.
It's the Death Star of Edo.
And today, its wrecked hulk is a carefully manicured public garden.
Commerce with the future
We were staying in a hotel in Kanda: but less than five minutes away lay Akihabara, the Mecca of the Nerds. So of course we had to visit.
Akihabara is loud, bewildering, and very, very strange. It's a street market that hitched a ride on an industrial revolution, and bits of the street market still cling to the skirts of the high-rise department stores, tucked out of the way in crowded indoor markets where there's nothing to separate the passing nerd-tourist from the LEDs, the gas chromatography machines, and the fifty bazillion kinds of cable and memory components. It's not just electronics and media, either. Akihabara caters to every need of its obsessive-compulsive consumers; there are a thousand obsessively catalogued species of anime porn in the narrow, high-rise shops, more sub-species of Gojira in more shapes and sizes than the entire insect class in the toy stores. And the maid cafes, of course. (I'm still not sure what that's about.)
At one point we fell upstairs into a shop that sold nothing but robots. Not toys, models of science fictional robots, or fantasies, but real working robots, and the tools and circuits and servos and sensors to build them. Not the boringly workmanlike robots one finds in car factories, but humanoid or reptiloid, ready to boogie or surf: it's almost like that future we were promised! Robots come in kits these days, programmable pocket people to come home to after a hard day's work. We bought one, wimping out and opting for a two centimetre tall micro-man of steel. It's almost like living in the 21st century!
Akihabara is every western tourist's idea of Japan — of the new Japan that emerged from the 1960s, first as a source of cheaply made gizmos and then as a turbocharged industrial and electronics powerhouse that promised world domination: not by the armoured minions of that imperial Death Star's builder, but by painfully polite salarymen in their uniform black suits. The blaring shriek of loudspeakers playing corporate jingles in Yodabashi Camera, the manic flickering of a thousand screens all around, bustling shoppers with down-cast eyes and saturation advertising on every street corner: this is the image that gave birth to western cyberpunk fiction in the 1980s, to the neurotic fear that this obsessively-detailed shopping extravaganza of the nerds, dominated by huge corporate logos and armies of identikit company men, was somehow the shape of our future.
But a tourist's eyes are unreliable; I should know, I live in a tourist trap. What the visitor sees is never what the long-term resident gets. Akihabara is a false image of Japan, simultaneously real and unrepresentative — like the huge corporate showrooms on Odaiba, an artificial land mass terraformed by alien hive-minds from the 24th century. We rode a monorail-like driverless train out to Odaiba for a day: gaped at the Panasonic 3D televisions, took a ride in a driverless Toyota, and wandered in confusion around a shopping mall so over-controlled and sterile that one could carry out wedding ceremonies or open heart surgery in its atrium. It was like a theme park depicting a world terraformed for habitation by robots from a future where dirt was illegal.
What places like Odaiba and Akihabara — or the shopping cores of Shinjuku and Shibuya — don't show you is the real Japan, where ordinary people lead lives that are ordinary by local standards. But it's very hard for a western tourist to go there in practice, because of the language barrier. While my wife speaks and reads some Japanese, my linguistic incompetence is legendary. Consequently, while visiting Japan I exist in a strange bubble of functional illiteracy — able to decipher some public signage (in romaji) but stricken on sight by a restaurant menu or a department store guide, adrift and dependent on interpreters for communication. It's like looking at a foreign culture through an impenetrable plate-glass window — I can see through it, but not touch or speak.
It's profoundly disorienting for a writer to have their primary communication skill so abruptly devalued. Maybe in a decade or two we'll have workable real-time machine translation, or brain implants that will let me download a language: if so, I might be able to resolve the full hologram, rather than peering at fragments. But until then, all I can do is look and puzzle.
Not being able to talk left me with a bunch of puzzling, perplexing questions. There are the uniforms, for one thing. Americans use their national flag promiscuously, as a symbol of affiliation — you see it everywhere, from grocery stores to car bumpers. In contrast, in Japan you don't see the flag around much. On the other hand, people seem to wear uniforms, or dress uniformly for work, in a similar way — far more willingly and routinely than in most other countries I've visited. Put an American or a Briton in a uniform and (with very few exceptions: notably, the military, or the emergency services) they'll resent it. But in Japan, people in roles that didn't provide a uniform seemed to converge on one voluntarily: the taxi drivers in their peaked caps and white gloves, the salarimen and office ladies in their black suits. And then there are the youth fashion sub-cultures, with their wildly different looks, but everyone all alike — as if a tenth of the population on any given street corner are memetic clones, trying to look identical in their non-conformity. Peering in from outside the cultural plate-glass window, I generated hypotheses, increasingly elaborate, about the cultural significance of the act of wearing a uniform —
But I couldn't ask.
Breakfast on the edge of a volcano
One day, in a misguided attempt to convince ourselves that we were actually on vacation by doing tourist-like things — my American publisher had helpfully sent me the page proofs of a book to review, just in case I was feeling unwanted — we went to Hakone.
There is no point in going on a day-trip to a picturesque tourist destination in the mountains without a plan. My plan, therefore, was to hunt down and eat an egg, hard-boiled in the sulpherous hot-springs of Mount Owakudani. My wife's plan (did I mention the monorails?) was to ride as many different kinds of ground transport in one day as is humanly possible. No eggs for her: she's allergic to them.
With the aid of some tourist brochures, a guide book, and the internet, we laid our plans. Our first stop was Shinjuku Station, to buy the two day tourist tickets and a seat upgrade on an Odakyu Romance Car. (The Japanese railway network is a thing for foreign eyes to marvel at; not merely the Shinkansen express services, but the profusion of narrow gauge networks run by furiously competitive companies — nowhere else in the world do companies run express trains on such narrow tracks.) Over the course of an hour we sat beside a huge glass window as the scenery unrolled past us, the buildings shrinking and the terrain growing wilder until we arrived at the end of the line and discovered ... snow!
April is an unpredictable month. Not being entirely naive, we'd brought appropriate clothing for our visit: and before heading for Hakone I checked the weather forecast. But my illiteracy bit me again: not being able to read the Japanese language forecasts I was relying on English language meteorology websites. The forecasts were approximate, covering an alarmingly large area — and although we were prepared for rain, we'd entirely missed the unseasonal mid-April blizzard that engulfed Hakone that day.
I'd left the liner for my heavy-duty waterproof jacket behind. Shivering in thin trousers and shoes, our planned walk through a cedar forest was hastily replaced by a bus-ride up a snaking mountain road behind a snow plough; then a boat ride across a mountain lake invisible beneath a blanket of low-altitude cloud, a cable car swaying in gusts of snow-driving wind halfway up a mountain ... and finally the station and souvenir shops near the top of Mount Owakudani, its peak invisible in the billowing wreaths of cloud. Battling the elements, I realized I wasn't the only ill-equipped tourist; half the young women in the visitor centre were dressed for the height of Harajuku fashion, in thin summer skirts and flimsy footwear. And they could read the weather forecast ...
I ceremonially ate my hard-boiled egg in front of my wife's camera, then we made our way down the slope of the volcano in stages: by cable car through a white-out (alone in a swaying, creaking cabin), then down a funicular railway and then a small mountain line with numerous switchbacks, before returning to the Odakyu line station. Along the way, we passed the hot springs at Yunnessen, the onsen not yet re-opened after an over-winter closure for renovation — a day amidst the rock pools there was one of our better memories from our previous visit.
Much better than a hard boiled egg in a blizzard.
Tourism is a ritual. Once the habit of the youthful aristocrats of Europe — sent with their tutors to journey around the nations of the continent for half a year or a year to broaden their horizons and their minds — it has become commodified, systematized, universalized and sanitized.
The first time I visited Japan I thought I had a handle on what I was seeing: a microcosm of the human future, a densely-populated nation that has had centuries of cheek-by-jowl urban living, like the crew of a generation starship in flight towards the future, dragging the scars of ancient history behind them. A land of monorails and shopping malls and coin-operated ramen noodle stands and spas with twenty flavours of bathing feature. And all of this is true.
But on further acquaintance, I find myself knowing less and less about Japan — or perhaps I'm just becoming increasingly aware of how little truth the tourist picture reveals.
Go on a madcap quest for a volcano-boiled egg, or take a tour of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines: this is expected. But it only gives you a fragmentary, tangential glimpse into the minds of the people who boil the eggs and build the temples. The closer you get to the broken shards of the hologram, the less information you find in them: eventually you'll get lost in a maze of overlapping wavefronts, dimmed almost to invisibility. And the rituals of tourism won't help you there.