I’m reaching the end of a physically punishing stay in Tokyo.
The first thing has been the jetlag – I’ve never experienced it to this extent before, and I’ve been stunned by just how much it messes you up. I’ve found myself wandering around my room at odd hours of the night, not really sure of what’s going on, feeling listless and disorientated. It’s a massive shock to the system, which I’m only just getting over.
Secondly, the temperature. It is mindblowingly, blisteringly hot here, and humid to boot. The minute you set foot outdoors, you become sealed in a film of sweat which doesn’t leave until you retreat back inside. It makes even the gentlest of walks a task of Herculean proportions, and I now understand why everyone here queues for escalators while the stairs remain empty – climbing up them is just too strenuous in the conditions.
Yet, everywhere I look, there are businessmen in suit jackets with their ties done up to the collar. To witness this unfailing conservatism in the face of such ferocious heat is staggering. And so, another Japanese paradox bursts vividly into life: the histrionic, half-dressed Harajuku kids versus the buttoned-up, poker-faced salarymen. This is not a nation that does things by halves.
I remember thinking to myself last year that I understood even less about the Japanese than I did before I came here. And my conceptions of the place and people continue to unravel. There is such diversity on a cosmetic level, yet everyone in this city seems wired into some kind of hive mind, which no foreigner can have any hope of penetrating. Yet the more I think about it, the more I believe that no outsider stands a chance of sussing out the Japanese, because the Japanese don’t really know what to make of themselves. There seems to be some kind of identity crisis which is embedded into the national consciousness, coupled with a malaise that is pre-programmed from birth. This country is hurtling inexorably into the future, yet is still haunted by its past; specifically, the events of the Second World War. It only takes a cursory glance at a handful of Japanese films, for instance, to see that these people have not yet come to terms with what happened. I had a moment of clarity regarding this matter a while ago, as I was looking through a collection of photographs in a magazine, and came across one taken shortly after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. An eight year-old boy had the corpse of his baby brother strapped to his back, and was taking him to a mass burial site. This is what modern Japan has grown up with; these tragedies etched into a collective psyche.
I don’t think by any means that this is the sole cause of the problem. There is another element which predates the bombings, and that is the rigidity of Japan’s social structure, and the fear of failure hanging like a Sword of Damocles over everyone’s necks. Add to this a disturbingly high suicide rate, and you begin to see a stark picture of a country which is seriously struggling with itself.
Anyway, enough of my analytical meanderings. I’ve been grateful to see another side of Japan, and while my trip has not been as charmed as my last one, it’s been every bit as rewarding. I’ve spent a lot of time chilling out in temples (chilling being the operative word, as they’ve provided a crucial refuge from the furnace outdoors) and observing people going about their daily lives. I’ve also seen some spectacular Engrish, perhaps best of all ‘Fresh Sand’ written on sandwich packets.
So back to Beijing tomorrow. I’m in the blue corner, and China’s capital is in the red. I’m going to give it a better run for its money than last year. I’m almost looking forward to the challenge.
And yet, all the while, Pyongyang beckons…