Tokyo alone boasts a GDP of 1.9 trillion USD. Its obsession with detail and discipline brings it 226 Michelin starred restaurants in 2015, 132 more than its nearest rival, Paris.
The train for Tokyo city centre pulls in at Haneda Airport at precisely 18:32. Like clockwork, the operator dashes out in the quickest and most efficient manner, holding the attached steel handle on one hand, making announcements at full vital capacity.
The doors close in synchrony with the platform edge barriers as the crowds meticulously complete their boarding exchange. This is not always the case, though, as during rush hours, Railway Pushers are hired to pack people onto the train by squeezing them from the outside, sometimes with a giant shovel.
Aside from those who board from the airport stations, passengers are mostly in their 50s, dressing in dark overcoats, brown derbies, and leather briefcases. Most stare at their smartphones while others read manga, all sporting a certain poker face lowered intently to avoid eye contact. Nobody talks. It is as if everyone onboard is united under the sole purpose of listening to the ceaseless bombardment of wheel squeals.
What immediately strikes me is how perpetually exhausted these people appear. Witnessing a sea of fatigued eyes and deep wrinkles, I quickly realize I am standing in front of the individuals who, working day in, day out until burnout, transformed Tokyo into the powerful city it is today.
Home to 35 million people, Tokyo boasts a GDP of 1.9 trillion USD in 2012, which is more than the GDP entire of countries like Canada or South Korea. It hosts the third largest stock exchange by market capitalization. Its research university, University of Tokyo, ranks best in Asia and 21st in the world.
Its obsession with detail and discipline brings it 226 Michelin starred restaurants in 2015, 132 more than its nearest rival, Paris. In 2020, it will be hosting the Summer Olympics for the second time, the first Asian city to do so. What is most impressive is that all of this is achieved within the span of three generations, after firebombing raids by United States Army Air Force destroyed most of the city in 1945.
Streets sprawl endlessly over the horizon, contouring cascading layers of concrete houses and skyscrapers. Lights flicker in codes of a cultural undercurrent cognizant only by the truest Tokyoites.
A live announcement by the train operator interrupts my thought excursion. The next stop is Tenkubashi. Mentally noted, I shift my attention back to the train ride. This airport rail leads the train into a labyrinth of rail networks owned by JR Group and dozens other public and private railway companies.
Together, those companies operate 882 interconnected rail stations in the Tokyo Metropolis serving 40 million daily passengers. A glance at the railway map is enough to get a sense of the engineering magnificence and the efficient coordination of this political, economic, and cultural centre of Japan.
As the railcars rise above the underground tunnel one by one, Tokyo’s night cityscape begins to emerge on the side windows.
Traffic flows like rapids through the formidable architectural gorges. Streets sprawl endlessly over the horizon, contouring cascading layers of concrete houses and skyscrapers. Lights flicker in codes of a cultural undercurrent cognizant only by the truest Tokyoites.
I stare into this panoramic blur poeticized by Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. So this is what Bob Harris saw when he arrived Tokyo in that black taxi.
It wasn’t until the Meiji Period that Tokyo’s urban planning began a rapid process of Westernization, culminating in the city layout and high risings that delineate the modern skyline we see today.
There is the Tokyo Tower, an Eiffel-Tower-inspired communications and observation tower built in 1958. The Tokyo Skytree, a Neo-Futuristic architecture, which, at 634 metres (2,080 ft), remains the tallest tower in the world since 2011 (Dubai’s Burj Khalifa being the tallest structure in the world).
Then there is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, a solemn and majestic structure that splits into two towers from the 33rd floor to the top (48th floor), offering a splendid view of Tokyo and Mount Fuji. It is designed by Kenzo Tange with a Modernistic interpretation of a Gothic cathedral.
And of course, who can overlook the breathtaking beauty of Tokyo Midtown – a mixed-use commercial tower owned by Mitsui Group, one of the largest keiretsu in Japan – and its $25,000 USD per night Ritz-Carlton Suite.
With all its Westernized modernity, it is hard to believe that only a few generations ago, Tokyo was, under Tokugawa bakufu, made up entirely of traditional structures of the Edo period.
They were single- or two-story wooden houses with tiled roof, slightly elevated off the ground by stone plinths. Those townhouses, called machiya, were heavily influenced by construction techniques of China’s Tang dynasty. They coexisted in the city with temples and shrines as well as residences of the provincial Daimyos, the powerful lords of feudal Japan.
It wasn’t until the Meiji Period in the latter half of 19th century that Tokyo’s urban planning began a rapid process of Westernization, which, together with the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and WWII destruction, resulted in the city layout and high risings that delineate the skyline we see today.
Tokyo is the epicentre of a collision between two cultures that are polar opposites. Since 1853, Japan has been on a delicate quest to integrate Western influence into its national psyche.
Accompanying this modernization are many interesting inconsistencies. For example, being the country with the longest life expectancy, Japan’s emphasis on health and sanitization is evident from little things like the prevalence of toilet slippers and wholesome diet, to advanced public health like rules requiring individuals on public transportation to turn off cell phones near pregnant women.
At the same time, however, are the proliferation of indoor smoking and meal-replacement drinks. On top of that, there is a general lack of hand soaps in public area, with people assertively sneeze into open air.
Another example is the ubiquitous presence of convenience stores selling wonderful hot snacks and yet with absolutely no place to eat them. In fact, no one eats on the streets. Not in transit, benches, or anywhere in public other than in a restaurant. Figuring out Tokyo, or Japan for that matter, is like trying to catch an eel – the moment a clear grasp seems to be at hand, it slips away farther than ever.
In many ways, Tokyo is the epicentre of a collision between two cultures that are polar opposites. After Matthew C. Perry’s gunboats force-opened its harbour in 1853, Japan has been on a delicate quest to integrate Western influence into its national psyche. Yoshida Shoin, one of the most distinguished Meiji era intellectuals and teacher to Japan’s first Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi, advocated “Japanese spirit, Western technology” as the principle to modernize and strengthen Japan.
150 years later, this distinction of East and West remains prominent in all aspects of Japanese life, from its immigration and refugee policy, zaibatsu and its reincarnated keiretsu, all the way to its rigid bureaucracy, arts, etiquette, and the Japanese language itself.
One only has to observe the dynamics between individualism and collectivism, tolerance of democratic expression and the lack of civil disobedience, and gender relations to see how there exist an unyielding tradition underneath the cloak of Westernization.