A city in perpetual motion

June 18, 1999

The great Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry recently told the American magazine New Perspectives Quarterly that visually his favourite city in all the world is Tokyo, for much the same reason that Salman Rushdie is his favourite novelist: it is a wild, polymorphous mix of imported styles, private conceits and post-modern puns, all thrown together in a promiscuous blend of East and West, high and low. Police stations, as Donald Richie points out in this portrait of the city, are made to resemble gingerbread houses; yellow-haired fashion victims clomp down an imitation Baker Street; and there are 3,000 love hotels, often in the shape of Windsor Castle, and indoor ski resorts made to resemble the Eiffel Tower. Whereas Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital, still sits along the rectilinear grid it borrowed from China more than 1,200 years ago (its streets are named "East" and "West", "Second", "Third" and "Fourth"), Tokyo scrambles everything up till it looks like the insides of a transistor radio.

As with a Rushdie phantasmagoria, Tokyo is a flight of fancy best apprehended in a kind of dream state, after dark - like a haiku set to music video visuals, a Blade Runner -style whirl of flashing lights and jangled rhythms and 22nd-century screens, where the streets have no names (and no numbers) and you can only absorb the blur of lights and indecipherable characters associatively, through the subconscious. "There is no feeling of frontality at all," Richie writes. It is far too crowded for any building to stand alone, or assert a sense of singularity or authority; instead, you take everything in at angles, squeezed between other things, and in parts (the Japanese, as Richie points out, have long cultivated "partial vision" - the edited view, the selected angle, the cropped clarity of the viewfinder).

Rooted more in the future than the past, Tokyo does not, in short, offer monuments so much as energies, its narrow lanes and "pencil buildings" buzzing with the information-rich density of a silicon chip; and instead of weight and timelessness, it offers fluidity, speed, the evanescence of dreams. Having acknowledged that it can never have the weathered dignity of a Washington DC or Paris - what was not destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, after all, was laid low by the US fire bombs of 1945, which killed at least 70,000 Tokyo people and destroyed two-fifths of the city in just two nights - Tokyo has decided to call its freedom from traditions "modernity" and to exult in the passing moment (currency, you could say, is its only form of currency). Some ascribe this to a Buddhist feeling for impermanence, some just to a surface-lover's addiction to the new. But, whatever the source, Tokyo gives the rare impression of being in perpetual motion, its buildings dissolving, coming up again, and seeming to reinvent themselves constantly. Even the great shrine at Ise, "Shinto's Vatican", as Richie calls it, is torn down every 20 years so it looks forever fresh.

Throughout this carnival of fleetingness, one foreigner has sat detachedly in the middle of it all, taking in every convulsion with a sanity and equanimity that would put most outsiders to shame. And his name is Donald Richie. When he arrived in 1947, as he writes here, in a powerful excerpt from his journals, it was to see "block after block of rubble, stretching to the horizon" - a "vast and blackened plain where a city had once stood."

And ever since, through all its many lives, he has watched the modern city fondly, while never beginning to forget that he will always be a foreigner there. Japan has an unusually strong effect on foreigners, in my experience, partly because it looks so different from everything we know that to surrender to its assumptions is to give up everything we grew up with; if Japan has got things right, you have to conclude that the world you know has got it wrong. Besides, as Richie notes in a typically sage perception, "the space between the distance kept and the intimacy implied is greater than in some other countries" (that "some" is a register of how careful he is not to be hyperbolic - I would have said "almost any"). Richie is the only foreigner I know who can take the place on its own terms, as few newcomers do, yet bring to it a freshness that almost every long-time resident has lost; kindly godfather to generations of young foreigners arriving to write the great book on Japan (I must be the only one who has never met him), and generalist wise enough to surrender to no dogma or ideology, he calmly chronicles a place that looks, as Lincoln Steffens wrote, as if it "were created as a satire on and for Western civilisation."

What Richie offers here, then - complemented by the witty and atmospheric black-and-white photographs of Joel Sackett - is a fluent, urbane and imperturbably genial overview written in the elegant amateur's style of a Tokyo Jan Morris, say; used to introducing the city to the outside world, the writer from Lima, Ohio takes us around the city's strip joints, its plastic gorillas and its numerous "Soapland" massage parlours (the name having changed from "Toruko" after a Turkish diplomat objected in 1984). Like most writers in Tokyo, both Japanese and foreign, Richie has relatively little time for the grey office blocks that make up the official face of Japan. Instead, he concentrates on the maze of little lanes that make up the pleasure quarters. Shinjuku, their heart, he rightly points out, is "noisy, forever under constructionI massive, crowded, bewildering", yet never hostile or cynical. The Japanese have a singular gift for being unabashedly profane, startlingly innocent, and both at once. One enterprising trio recently made Pounds 90,000 in a month by selling what they claimed were used schoolgirls' underwear in vending machines, and were stopped only when the education ministry decided they might be violating the Antique Dealings Act.

Thanks, in part, to his healthy appetite for the disreputable, the author dispenses with the classic stereotypes of the country very quickly. The Japanese are not in his experience very clean, nor are they enormously efficient or logical (let alone blessed with a sense of civic duty). Tokyo's most notable feature is its complete absence of planning or pattern (houses are subject to zoning, but streets are not). In a way, I would say, many Japanese citizens construct their own individual fantasy spaces, exquisite and immaculate in themselves. But put them all together and you are awash in a jabberwocky of clashing dreams (as in Rushdie, again). In a culture at once so seductive to foreign theorising and so resistant to it, Richie is content not to deride Tokyo for its tastelessness, nor to make a fetish of its eccentricities, but simply to accept it for what it is, and try to make the most of it. "Wandering in a smart Tokyo neighbourhood," he writes serenely, "is like wandering in a box of Quality Street: everything is different, everything tastes the same."

As that image implies, Richie's greatest gift, especially among the keyhole-minded professional inspectors of Japan, is to bring to the country a larger sense of culture and a wider interest in books and ideas and to define it largely through unforced comparisons with Paris or New York or Chicago (thus at the same time cutting through the habit, common to both Japanese and foreigners, of assuming that Japan is utterly unique).

Referring to the huge central space of the Imperial Palace, around which little neighbourhoods swarm, he says it is "as though L'Enfant's Washington had, once past the White House, reverted to the paths and lanes of rural Virginia." If "Japanese cities often feel like the back lots of movie studios," he writes, Tokyo resembles "an international exposition which has remained standing." The effect, always, is to put things into a larger perspective. "Naturally, individuality is felt as strongly in Japan as elsewhere," he writes with typically temperate wisdom; "it is simply that it is expressed less directly."

Occasionally, here, some of his allusions feel a little forced and superimposed (in the first two pages alone, he quotes Henry James, Alexander Payne, Samuel Johnson and Shelley on London, which is strange since, as he notes, Tokyo is nothing like London). And, having written on Tokyo so often, and for so long, he occasionally slips into auto-pilot. As he acknowledges, with characteristic generosity, the definitive chronicler of the city's recent history is the American scholar Edward Seidensticker (to whom this book is dedicated), who, in his Low City , High City and Tokyo Rising , extended his erudition, with pungent and idiosyncratic nostalgia, to the fading demi-monde. The next-generation Tokyo of bikers, party girls and minor gangsters has been most vividly brought to life by Karl Taro Greenfield in his Speed Tribes .

At times, too, I felt that the emphasis on theme-parked, irony-free Tokyo was obscuring something deeper. The city's surfaces are compulsively modern, but underneath, I suspect, there may be much more that is traditional than people acknowledge (much as, in reverse, Kyoto shrewdly peddles the old - geisha and tea ceremonies and kimono and Zen temples - while keeping up enough modern cacophony to power an industrial city larger than Detroit).

Still, the only reason to complain about Richie's citations of "Constantin Guys (quoted by Baudelaire, as quoted by Walter Benjamin)" is that his own evocations are so much more concrete and alive. Indeed, as his book went on, I began to feel that beneath even its usefulness as a lucid and fair-minded introduction to a complex city, its deeper value lay in its consideration of the universal (Rushdie-ish) theme of living as a foreigner. Richie has clearly thought long and hard about this over his 52 years in Tokyo and he is full of striking images: living in a country where you do not speak the language, he says, is like watching a foreign film without subtitles - you learn little about the film, but a lot about film-making. The best lesson, though, is simply his example, surveying the oddities of his "unusually ugly" adopted home town with an open-minded alertness and a gentle, amused wit that gets to the heart of things without fuss. Foreigners, he writes, citing Alastair Reid, are "curable romantics"; Richie's strength is to have accepted the cure without entirely swallowing it.

Based in Kyoto, Pico Iyer is the author of The Lady and the Monk .

Tokyo: A View of the City

Author - Donald Richie
ISBN - 1 86189 034 6
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £14.95
Pages - 143

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments