Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals. – Jean Baudrillard
My first trip to Japan left me with a sense of absolute enchantment. I visited the Ghibli museum in Mitaka, traveled to Osaka, was sobered by the reality of war in Hiroshima, and the history of Kyoto. It was the first time I’d traveled anywhere Asian (apart from Thailand for one day… which turned me off traveling to Asia for some time). I came home emphatically declaring that I would return to Japan to teach English.
6 months later I returned. I went to Hokkaido – visiting Sapporo and Asahikawa, becoming immersed in the natural beauty of Japan. I then spent time in Tokyo and also visited Shizuoka. But the second time revealed a few more cracks. Actually, something I appreciated about the second trip was that I began to see more disabled people in Tokyo – an extremely energetic man on the train and his older mother, and a group of children with Down’s syndrome. Understanding that the fall is in every country, it was sobering to see that Japan, where everything appeared to be running efficiently and properly, was a country tainted by sin, as all countries were. For the next little while, I am going to write short essays on my experience and observations about living in Tokyo, Japan.
I never thought I’d consider quoting Jean Baudrillard in anything after getting through his book, Simulacra and Simulation, which was a torturous read that could have been merely one chapter in length. Nonetheless, Baudrillard makes the interesting point that today’s society moves further into both simulations of real things and also a simulacrum of the truth. More and more, things are recycled and remixed to the point where we don’t know what the original is, and we are lost in perceptions of truth and unable to discern what is real anymore. Perhaps the best or simplest example of this is seen in The Matrix, where the world is run by machines that copy the reality of what was the real world (which is also a riff on Descartes’ Brain in a Vat experiment). Of course, I think most people can somewhat understand what is real and what isn’t, but I feel that since entering Japan (or better still, probably Tokyo and the other major cities… I can’t speak for country areas), this analysis appears most poignant.
There is an aural assault on the senses. Whether that is the giant billboards, music, or shopkeepers – it is no wonder the trains are – simultaneously – the most crowded and quietest place in the city. But when you are crammed into these confined spaces, you may take a quick glance over the shoulder of your fellow commuter. He is a 40-year-old man playing video games on his phone. Screens above the doors show advertisements next to ‘The next stop is…’ screen. These advertisements have no volume. They are subtitled, yet they always display frighteningly augmented versions of reality. The characters in the ads have extremely exaggerated movements and reactions to mundane events (think The Simpsons’ Mr. Sparkle commercial). Every once in a while the train driver will break the quiet with an announcement, that is dreadfully plain, without expression. Once you’ve broken focus from the screens and look around, you’ll notice a salaryman sleeping while he is hanging onto the rail as the train plods along, half of his face underneath a surgical mask. Next to him, is another salaryman fast asleep on the seat, wedged between another man and a woman. The small, well-dressed Japanese women are buried in a sea of black suits, also facing a screen in the palm of their hand – flicking through Instagram or writing characters on LINE. (Sidenote: one thing that may come as a surprise when you visit Japan is that men are first, not women, as I have been accustomed to).
Once you’ve left the train, you are greeted by a short jingle and the sound of birds chirping.
The sound of birds chirping, not real birds.
The noise of the city returns in the form of loud advertisements, traffic, and footsteps. Everyone is walking hurriedly out of the station to the next thing.
Groups of drunk work colleagues stumble out of The Big Echo after butchering their favourite songs. They bow and stumble to the station to get home – and usually, they do. Meanwhile in the background is a new J-Pop group being played out of the back of a truck with their faces on the side. The sound intensifies as the truck approaches, loud enough to drown out the sound of the diesel engine. These same, bright young faces will be forgotten in a few months and when Summer comes, there will be a song to define the season, that everyone must like. The truck leaves.
Files of people walk by enervated faces. The youth may be laughing with their friends, but beyond the age of 25, that optimism is quashed. The Preacher speaks the truth: ‘Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content.’ (Eccl 1:8). The augmented reality which presents mosaics of mixed meanings has left many people without a soul. Yet many attempts to feed their spirits continue on in live bars, where music presents meaningful, transcendental experiences that numb the constant assault and lift one out of the daily grind. But as the final note is played, they return into the bitterly cold Winter air.
The people here crave something from the heart, something meaningful, true, and authentic.