It is officially my summer vacation, as of last Thursday the 17th of July, I don't have to work until the 22nd of September. Tsuyuu (the rainy season) has really dragged this year, it usually ends about the second week of July, but it's been really nasty, humid and raining almost everyday. For example, I met some friends at a rooftop beer garden, and it rained, yesterday there was some respite as I watched the annual fireworks festival in Yokohoma, but this morning it poured. Hopefully it is past us.
That being said the alternative isn't much better. Once the rain stops the really hot weather starts, it will be constantly in the30s with high humidity. Tokyo is cursed with what is known as "the heat island" effect. In the last 100 years the average temperatures in Tokyo have risen 3C (5.2 F). The streets and buildings absorb the heat, so it's not uncommon to see storeowners cooling off the pavement in front of their shops with hoses. Other factors include the lack of greenery and air conditioners releasing heat outside so that nights don't cool down much from the daytime temperatures. It's a far cry from the mild temperatures of Seattle, which I won't experience until mid August unfortunately.
In the meantime, I'm going to be studying intensively for the second level of the Japanese Proficiency Test and teaching a 6-day seminar to Junior High School Teachers in Saitama. I also hope to do some research reading for an academic paper I hope to write on Junichiro Tanizaki for next year, but I?m sure I'll have enough time to relax this summer as well. I have booked a flight using mileage from United Airlines for 16 days in SE Asia, but I may cancel it and use the miles later, still debating how to spend my time in September.
Recently I went to a talk by Alex Kerr, a noted Japanologist and author of the book Dogs and Demons, at Temple University's Tokyo branch campus and was impressed with his presentation on some problems facing modern Japan today. I read his book, last year and felt that although it effectively addressed some pressing concerns for Japanese society, it ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth. It is always difficult to be an outsider looking on and criticizing a society from the outside. He had some good points to make, but it seemed like a one-sided attack, and perhaps this was intentional so as to highlight his concerns and criticisms. I found it a bit heavy handed and his tone was a bit arrogant and holier than thou.
That being said, I felt that his presentation in person was much stronger. First off, he came across less sever, but intelligent, reasonable, and personable, thus making the audience comfortable at the onset. He discussed his history and background in Japan, which is extensive. He seemed much more willing to give credit, where credit was due. He also had a slide presentation to highlight his concerns about what Japan is doing to itself.
The central metaphor of the book is that according to an old expression demons are easier to draw than dogs. The logic behind this is that imaginary things are easy to create since there are no examples in our midst, while the ordinary, everyday things like dogs and horses are difficult to get right since you hardly pay attention to the details of the ordinary. Thus, he makes a case for the way that Japan is destroying its countryside and culture through bureaucratic policies that may have made sense at on time, but have spiraled out of control while no one was really paying attention since it is the status quo.
The strongest part of the book is at the beginning where he illustrated the problem of over-construction, specifically the over use of concrete, with a multitude of well-researched facts. For example he points out that Japan, a country with the land mass of Montana, pours ten times the amount of concrete a year as the United States. This point was strengthened in his presentation by his slide show, which showed the ridiculous civil construction projects that result in unneeded dams, roads that go nowhere, senselessly ravaged roadsides, and massive unnecessary tetra pods that litter the seas sides. He cites this as one of the major examples of bureaucracy out of control.
He illustrates this by describing the unholy alliance of government and construction companies that work together awarding government contracts for kickbacks to politicians. In fact last year, a major politician from Nagano (Mueneo Suzuki) was indicted for accepting bribes on behalf of construction companies. The problems run deeper according to reports that construction companies drive up bidding prices on construction jobs by meeting before and setting the low bid.
He makes the valid point that less than 40 years ago Japan was in desperate need of infrastructure. He used a personal antecdote from his youth spent with his family in Yokohama, in which he describes the day his family took a special trip to Tokyo, which was special because it was by car on the new two-lane highway they had just built between two of Japan's biggest cities in 1964. This clearly illustrated the need for more infrastructures. However, it has skyrocketed out of control, as it became means for jobs, status in local communities as well as a form of rewarding those in politics.
One of his other major points was how these systematic bureaucratic decisions about building and urban planning were affecting the culture of cities, and in turn effecting tourism. Not long ago one of my students said that Tokyo was a "lovely" city and I had to correct. Tokyo may be "an exciting" city, "a lively city", but it is decidedly not a "lovely" city. Paris is a "lovely" city, Venice is a "lovely" city, Tokyo is something else altogether. It is poor urban planning combined with urban sprawl-where does Tokyo end and the suburbs begin? It's difficult to tell. Don't get me wrong there are some beautiful places in Tokyo (Shinjuku Gyoen, the Imperial Grounds, Yoyogi Park, etc...), but it is blighted by mismatched building styles, exposed telephone wires and aerial antennas.
In fact, I can look outside my window right now and get a wonderful view of a power transformerView image. The reason Japan doesn?t bury its cables and wires are related to the construction problem. The poles the support the wires and transformers are made by construction companies out of concrete, therefore eliminating them would affect the industry.
He takes this argument further and relates it the decision to forgo traditional designs or material when building public buildings like train stations or private enterprises like hotels. He rightly points out the rich tradition of architecture and art in Japan that gets overlooked for more bland or European influence design styles. As result Japan isn't presenting what it has that separates it from other countries. Japan is 49th in tourism behind Croatia and Tunisia.
Kerr has a project going in the Iya Valley on the island of Shikoku in which he is restoring an old style village. There are opportunities for people to come and volunteer in the restoration of some to he ancient houses that they are trying to preserve. You can check out his website as well. I recommend this thought-provoking book to anyone with an interest in modern Japan.
After more than three years in the urban, fashionable, and hip Harajuku district I have moved to residential, unfashionable, and quiet Bunkyo-ku area near Ikebukuro. It was long time coming, but various factors kept me in Harajuku: uncertain future, laziness, lack of money needed to finance a move, the convenience of living in a city hub, hatred of looking for places to move, hatred of the moving process itself, etc...
The main reasons for the move were a desire for more space and a less active neighborhood. My old room was about 18 square meters I think and quite old, thus there were some peculiarities about the place. For example a shower in the kitchen (older buildings didn't have showers since the occupants would use the sento (public bath) daily. That being said it was a step up from the gaijin house (guest house), I was staying in when I first moved to Tokyo. God knows how small those rabbit hutches were with no storage space and a "communal" men's shower in the kitchen.
Living in a popular place like Harajuku is a curse and a blessing. It's great, because it is conveniently located in the center of Tokyo near lots of fashionable places like Shibuya, Omtesando, Aoyama, and Nishi-Azabu. But because it is a destination place for the young set, it is overrun with aimless youth from early afternoon until early evening and all day on weekends, thus making simple tasks like going to the station or the gym a chore.
At first I thought I would move to an equally hip area like Ebisu (a place a little further south that has lots of great restaurants and bars), but after several abortive attempts to find a reasonably large place that wasn't too old or decrepit, I gave up. I realized that the $6,000 I would have to put down in order to move in was too daunting. I was operating through a local Japanese real estate office. The fees involved include first month's rent, a month's damage deposit, two months key money (a nonrefundable gift amount for the privilege of renting from the landlord), as well as one month's rent for an agent fee for helping you find it. But the insidious thing is that I was willing to part with the dough on a couple of occasions and was denied because I was a foreigner. This despite the fact I speak Japanese, am over 30, work at a university, and am from America-all pluses, I feel sorry for people from Asia they must really have limited choices. This frustration led to searching out other options.
So I decided to call an agency that caters to foreigners, much like the one from which I was renting from in Harajuku. They showed me a 2K, which means two rooms and a separate kitchen, which was about twice the size of my former abode and 30,000 yen ($250) more expensive. It is closer to where I work and in a year when my campus moves I will be able to ride my bike to the campus. So I decided to make the move and now I pay basically $1000 a month, it is not much different from the prices of other places I looked at. The big difference was that I only had to pay one month's rent for deposit, which has allowed me to furnish the place with a new refrigerator, washing machine, double bed, double American style-futon that folds out into a bed, and 29 inch TV. So I finally feel set up.
The main set back is that I am somewhat isolated located near two subway stops, Myogadani (Marounochi line) and Edogawabashi (Yuracho line). The subways stop running a little after midnight, thus making connections form elsewhere difficult. However, a small price to pay for a comfortable apartment.
I have had over a week to get used to my new apartment and surrounding area. There are several schools in the neighborhood, a women's college, a co-ed college, as well as several elementary, junior high, and high schools. The area is located in shitamachi (or downtown). And this is synonymous with traditional not new neighborhoods. My neighborhood is quiet and residential and it feels like I have stepped back in time. An acquaintance said he lived near where I do several years ago and thought that it seemed like it was the 70s here. Gentrification has definitely not reached my part of town by any means, but that's OK, I've already had my season in the sun so to speak...sayonara Harajuku.