Tokyo Turbocharge

This blog is not really a blog so much as a story in the process of being written. It's about what happens when an English guy goes to Japan for a couple of years. Please use the comments to let me know what bits you like or don't like.

You can start at the beginning by clicking here, or go to my normal blog Glacons.

Monday, February 28, 2005

6. Arrival Briefing

To a graduate fresh out of university, having spent the last five years in beery poverty, the experience of a free business class flight to Japan was as luxurious as being bathed in milk by twelve naked maidens. Stepping out of the bus to place my feet on the spotless pavements below Shinjuku's dramatic vista and wandering into the sumptuous five star halls of the fourty seven floor Keio Plaza Hotel, I felt like a complete fraud. I was just a twenty three year old working class kid who'd blagged a free ride to Japan and ended up in a room with gold plated taps and a free sewing kit, sitting high up in a skyscraper looking out across the chasm of roadway to a bewildering mess of city. I was so excited that I rapidly set to work stealing as many souvenirs as possible, including a varnished oak Keio Plaza clothes hanger that forever forced my flimsy blue plastic one out of the suit holding business.

Us Brits weren't the only people arriving for the briefing, or the 'Tokyo Orientation' as it was termed by The Programme. There were also people from Australia, America, Canada, even a smattering of continental Europeans. We had two nights and a day to spend in the hotel together. Our schedule was filled with welcome addresses and lectures by keynote speakers, basic Japanese lessons and buffet meals and imbetween all that, some free time to sneak out onto the humid streets of Shinjuku to get our first real taste of things. Being a Japanese government initiative, The JET Programme had pulled out all the stops in their efforts to impress us with the grandeur of Japan. I can see now looking back that these early moments of my experience in Japan were constructed by the JET organisers to communicate something to us. With the locations they chose, with the luxury they lavished upon us as their guests, with the status and credibility of the speakers we listened to during the briefing, Japan was consciously and deliberately showing itself to us. By choosing these particular images, it was displaying all of its wealth, international status and modernity: the vital aspects of its national identity.

Imagine if your country, whilst in a state of isolated Feudalism, had been forced at the point of American gunships to open itself up to the outside world. Well this is the story of Japan, and the background to the drama into which I had plunged myself with that fateful choice back in summery London.

It was 1853 when the Americans sailed up into Tokyo bay in their four black ships, loaded with 61 cannon and typical Western hubris about showing backward nations the meaning of enlightenment. Japan had been in self isolation for the previous 200 years, fiercely limiting its exposure to a dribble of goods and people, and a stream of information. Although cut-off from it, the Japanese were not uninterested by the state of the world and had been busy learning a significant amount about the state of our nations, their political structures and legal systems, militaries, economies, and our systems of thought. With the arrival of the American gunships, they recognised how backward and militarily weak they had become in comparison to the West. At this point the Japanese military elite, the Shoguns and Samurais who ruled the country, factionalised into those who wanted to progress their nation by adopting new ideas and technology, and those who wanted to preserve the status quo by killing any Westerner who set foot on their volcanic island shores. It wasn't until 1889 that a constitutionalised Japan came into existence, singing the tune of national propaganda with phrases such as 'Rich Country, Strong Army'. With this step, Japan embarked onto a new path in its relationship with the rest of the world. It was a unique step, one which made Japan the only country in the history of Western colonial expansion that prevented itself being turned into a remotely governed outpost. It was a step which immediately threw Japan into competition with the Western powers, and not just competition for materials, but competition for status.

To a people still thinking within a fuedal system of thought that stratified Japanese society into a vertical hierarchy of identities including peasant, farmer, artisan, merchant, priest and warrior, the world appeared as comprising of hierarchical layers of nations. Japan saw that it had some climbing to do if it was to be further up the scale and a peer to the advanced Westerners. Since we were all playing the game of imperialism at the time, it joined in. It transformed itself into an imperial power by systematically importing Western technology and manufacturing, and grafting them onto their own talented indigenous craft industry. Japan was so successful that by 1942 it had managed to secure almost all of South-East Asia, including Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, a significantly sizeable chunk of Eastern China, and undivided Korea. However, intoxicated with a fervently overconfident nationalism built on a politics of mystical dogma, Japanese ambitions had dealt themselves a killer blow by attacking the Americans at Pearl Harbor one year earlier. Being an island nation with very few natural resources, it was always going to be difficult to beat the American behemoth and its allies. Nevertheless, Japan battled on for another four years until Hiroshima was struck by the Atom Bomb, killing over one hundred thousand men, women and children in a single violent flash. By the time Nagasaki had been similarly destroyed three days later, the God Emperor and his cabinet were ready to accept the Allied terms: complete surrender followed by an allied occupation and the creation of a democratic state. The Americans moved in under General MacArthur, determined to overhaul the Japanese mind and its culture as much as the organs of its state and economy. Seven years later, the country was left transformed into a pacifist constitional monarchy, with reformed industry and unions, an overhauled education system, and with a number of military bases remaining under American possession.

After the war, the game of imperialism was more or less over, and trade and economy became the playing field upon which nations measured themselves against each other. With its completely modernised state, without the need to pay for national defence, and with an empoverished people ambitious to recover the face they had lost through the shame of fighting on the losing side of the war, Japan had everything in place to promote its economic expansion. The Olympics were held in Tokyo in 1964, with visitors from all across the world experiencing a new modernity and efficiency, symbolised not least by the hi-tech prowess of the 125 mph Shinkansen Bullet Trains. By 1968 the Japanese had succeeded in growing their economy to become the second largest in the world, behind only the US. If Europeans had ever been relevant to the Japanese they certainly became less so now, being lower down the hierarchy of nations as measured by GDP. As far as it was concerned, Japan had arrived, was our peer or superior, and it intended us to know it. During the '80s when their economy was riding a bubble of false expansion and arming itself with a fistful of dollars won through exporting, corporate Japan toured the West on a shopping spree. They kept themselves busy buying up icons of Western culture like the Rockefeller Centre in New York and paintings by celebrity artists like Picasso, Van Gogh or Monet. None of these purchases were made because of their investment potential. They were made for the purpose of ostentatiously showing Japanese wealth to the world and to themselves. To them, the possession of our icons was a way to communicate something to the world about their new position in the international status rankings.

And there it was, the thing that I had fallen into by changing culture - a vibrant and dynamic paranoia about national and personal status. I didn't know it, but I had suddenly changed my own status from that of Human Being to that of Status Symbol. Under those circumstances, the next two years were always going to be a challenge. But for the time being, I just wanted to know which particular part of Japan I was going to be living in.

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