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TOKYO | AN HOMAGE
Like a compelling piece of music, every true city expresses a character, a spirit, that can't be captured in wordplay. Language can trap a little of the back-story, maybe a few details, but not the complex simultaneity of a city's fumes, the way its raindrops land on the cement at night, the canopies and colors of its trees, the energy flow of its boulevardiers. This force of a city usually come on all at once, like the Olympus of a new mythology - complete with gods, goddesses, warriors, rebels, story-tellers, and, always in the foreground, the peculiar, local way that everyday mortals suffer and play. We take the curtain-opening to a city on faith, because there's a story there, an intricate and particular plot, and all of the players seem to be participating with the greatest sincerity.
One hesitates to give a city a single hook, as there are always so many complexities and contradictions, but the hooks are irresistible. They create an express passageway into the mythology. Poets make the best hooks, the way Carl Sandburg, citing Chicago as " the city of big shoulders," offered us a thousand macho images at once, flashing through the city's history of meat-packing, factory labor, gangsters, G-men, and basketball players.
Cities are also anchored in the character of their nation. The entropic, heartless nature of most American big cities would not be what it is without the country's origins in laissez-faire capitalism - Don't Tread on Me - and the increasingly universal acceptance that those who fall out of competition no longer merit recognition; indeed no longer exist. (How else could our sidewalks and parks fill with homeless encampments whose inhabitants are skirted like ghosts?)
Japan has its own national problems with delusional exceptionalism - notably the brutal colonial adventures of the last century, leadership that seems increasingly bent on military restoration, and managed demographics that maintain a steady-state racial homogeneity.
But, internally, Japan is an exemplary model of social organization by almost any metric. Unemployment is at 2.8%. The nation spends less than 1/2 as much per capita as the U.S. on a socialized health care system that delivers far better outcomes - half the infant mortality rate; average life expectancy that exceeds ours by 6 years; and far lower occurence of obesity. Japan spends less than 2/3 per capita as the U.S. on education, with the highest composite performance rankings among developed countries. (OECD statistics.) Carbon emissions are a little more than 1/2 of the U.S. per capita, ranking it alongside the highest performing Scandinavian countries. (Union of Concerned Scientists.)
While the rest of the world remains bridled with stale 18th and 19th century ideologies, Japan's successes seem to move from a more timeless spirit. It is, most vividly, a big, crowded island. And an island is hopeless unless its inhabitants collaborate. One cannot flow with a crowd or ride on a (respectfully quiet) packed subway without sensing that one is seated in a collaborative culture.
Of course there is hierarchy, inequality, and corruption, (as any fan of contemporary Samurai movies can infer), but overt respect and civility between fellow citizens remain the first principles of public life. One suspects this is because some level of social equity is not just symbolic or surficial, but structural:
The average income of Japan's top 1% of the population was $240,000 in 2012. (World Economic Forum.) (This compared to $1,265,000 in the U.S.) Japan's highest incomes are taxed at 45%, and there is a 55% tax on inherited wealth, (what American oligarchs are cynically fond of calling the 'death tax'). Accumulating generational wealth is thus difficult. While the wealthy enjoy life voraciously as anywhere else - especially in a culture of fine food, drink, clothing, and craftsmanship - conspicuous consumption is a cause for both ridicule and embarrassment.
The result of the progressive taxation is a nation with an unparalleled physical and social infrastructure. When social welfare puts its money where its mouth is, the result is evidenced on the ground, where the nation's inhabitants show an overt care and service towards each other and towards their culture. The seeming oddity, to westerners, of not tipping in Japan, is further turned on its head by the high quality of service: Those who do business are made proud not by extra compensation, but by the excellence with which their service is delivered.
Perhaps most notable in shaping the convivial nature of Tokyo is a subway/train system that drapes the city and suburbs so completely that nearly all points in the metropolis are easily walkable from the system stations. Men and women work day and night in the supervision, customer assistance, maintenance of the system - inside the stations and continuously along the meticuolously numbered track segments. (These tracks carry 8.7 million daily riders on the subways and 40 million daily riders on the trains.) The civic vision of the leadership that underlaid the transit system foresaw and embraced that this investment would be continuous - a scale of foresight inconceivable in the tax-adverse environs of the U.S. The system maintenance requires a massive and expensive labor force who show pride, savvy, and modesty at once. They are, after all, keeping millions of people safe every day. In modern times, I'm not sure there's an enterprise anywhere that better exemplifies a vigorously-engaged social contract - its astounding costs matched by its abundant social benefits.
The most sensible reason, it seems to me, for one to live in a city, is to be freely connected. In that sense alone, this city is a dream. And, like any good dream, each scene is vividly set, each neighborhood different, and each employing nature both sparingly and poignantly.
The diversity is not strictly scenographic. The genuine variety of both public and commercial experience regenerates itself continuously. Somewhere in the city, there is a neighborhood for every specialty, and a singular shop for every eccentricity. Along with these specializations comes the design capacity - in a land of constricted space - to 'change mood on a dime': The world is given a complete new context, ground and figure made anew, in miniature, with every vista one takes in.
At the same time, as with all great cities, one can be almost anywhere within Tokyo's bounds and find commonalities and markers that assert the city's overweaning presence. Aside from the pronounced levels of civility, there is the recurring and revered cherry tree - which, in blossom, will stop city-goers in their tracks to appreciate. There is a universal attention to both personal and evironmental cleanliness, a ferocity of presentational care (whether the aesthetic is ancient or contemporary), and also at all levels of modesty or wealth, a sense of sartorial style.
For a westerner, watching the patterns of dress is not unlike the experience of a watching science fiction film - the creatures on this planet wholly understandable, but utterly unlike the American city-dweller. One senses that working people don't dress up impeccably because they have to, but for the aesthetic and erotic pleasure it gives - for themselves, and for each other as fellow/sister players on the city's stage.
(If this strikes you as romanticizing - that a whole people could intrepidly try hard, from clothes-wearing down to the smallest of daily gestures, for the happiness of each other as citizens - you can readily find, more crass and utilitarian interpretations of these gestures in the culture/history section of English-Japanese phrase books. )
A dispiriting contrast: Upon returning and driving in my home town, on North Vermont Avenue, I was regaled on Christmas Eve day by a man pulling his coat up and his trousers down to defecate over the curb.
Hope for an equitable economy, dignity, and a convivial public life in the American city is not lost - but conditions here increasingly seem to be falling a century behind the rest of the world.