The motto of a fictional character of mine was All Cliches Are True. As I was reminded twice, spectacularly, during my first full day in Tokyo.
Of course I knew about the (cliche of the) Japanese schoolgirl subculture, and its devotion to cuteness, uniformity, pinkness, intense girl-to-girl friendliness, technology, and so on. But my visit yesterday afternoon to an arcade of elaborate photo booths in Shibuya, right after school let out, was a hands-on gas. Now I viscerally know what that subculture looks and feels like, instead of just having read about it.
Our Japanese colleague Lisa Katayama accompanied me -- and indeed, as a man (or boy) I wouldn't have been allowed into the place without her. The booths are individually themed to produce a particular kind of group (girl) portrait, and the booths are large -- 3 times as big as the ones we know in America. Once inside, you're cued to pose in particular ways -- to 'vogue' according to prescribed super-cute situations. And then, in a second both, one adds stars and hearts and unicorns and flowers and mushrooms and and letters and numbers to one's portrait at will. And the final product is a postcard-sized, adhesive-backed montage of 24 photos, which is supposed to be cut into 24 individual stickers and shared with one's BFFs. I now have an uncanny desire to attend a boy-band concert with Lisa.
Another true cliche about Japan -- the insane, inefficient illogic of the street address system; that is, the lack of a system easily usable even by natives -- I experienced last night.
I left my hotel, and handed the printed, Japanese-language address of a restaurant to my cab driver; he loaded the address into his GPS device. And still, he couldn't find the destination. Finally he parked, turned off his meter, and wandered away to find a human being who could tell him where the (Italian) restaurant was. Twenty minutes later, he returned, drove 2 blocks, and we were there.
The ill-fated cab.
For a country where humiliation avoidance is supposed to be a prime cultural driver, how weird that this daily opportunity for minor humiliation is hard-wired into life. Consider the time (and gasoline) wasted -- and consider how many millions of times the same thing happens every year in Tokyo. Japan is one of the most supremely modern, well-organized places I've ever been -- with for this bizarre, gratuitous premodern exception.
- Kurt Andersen