Tokyo Sadness

I hate Tokyo. Each time I come here I hate it a little more. It’s so… sterile. There is no peace here. Sometimes I wonder if there is any humanity here at all. Tokyo is the sort of place that can’t be explained, it has to be experienced. No matter how many people are around me here, I feel alone. I feel so, so alone. When I was growing up in the Australian countryside the infamous tyranny of distance sometimes weighed heavily on me. But even then, even when I was alone miles from the next person, I never felt this lonely. At least then I had my own company. In Tokyo my irrelevance is made oppressively clear.

Were it not for work I don’t think I’d come here at all. Sometimes I look around me on the metro. School children who, in Australia, would laugh and show all sorts of cheerful cheek are silent – morose, even. The adults look mass-produced: black hair, brown eyes and the same black business suits. Whenever I can, I leave this place. Even the air here is heavy, a leaden stew of sweat, smog and silent desperation.

In the evenings, after meetings, I slip away to Ueno Park. There’s something about it that gives me space to breathe. At least it isn’t as crowded as Chuo, Shibuya or Shinjuku. In the alleys past the station there are many shops that show a side of this glittering sea of pulsating life that many will tend to overlook. There are the shoe shops with faux patent leather shoes for 1500 yen. There are the shops with cheap, late-model watches of European and Japanese provenance. Then there are the shops that sell cheap, sleazy suits to the legions of university students from the provinces seeking employment.

A memory that will always be branded into the flesh of my consciousness is that of a pair of shoes I once saw. I beg the reader’s charity for setting, kangaroo-like, off on a tangent. In my university days at Sydney I took in a Japanese flatmate. It was rather unexpected. We had several classes together and we hit it off. Hiroshi was his name. He, like many Japanese international students, had little experience of life outside his island nation. Like many Japanese, students or otherwise, the distinctness of Japanese life makes it difficult to adjust to any other setting. I had to laugh when he referred to me –an Australian citizen and resident of that country for all part six months of my life – as a “foreigner”. He was assigned student housing with a flatmate from Korea. Two months into his first term, the combined effects of excess drink, imperfect English and a poor choice of discussion topics – namely history – resulted in my receiving a midnight telephone call. Hiroshi was no longer welcome and needed somewhere to go. I gave him use of my sofa.

That marked the start of an affair of which I will always be slightly ashamed. He was in equal measures loyal and reliant. I was lonely and felt betrayed. In my adolescence I gave myself to a blue-eyed bloke who longed for his beloved Sweden. I despised him and his absence. What I didn’t do was go with him, however much he asked me to. These thoughts flash through my mind sometimes. Moments are like blossoms. They bud and bloom only to be carried away in the wind. No matter how beautiful, they are transient. Then again, isn’t that what makes them so beautiful? The fact that they will never last? Memories, dreams, ambitions, hopes — even entire lives — they come only to go again. There is no promise save that the cycles of life will continue, that all will be replaced.

This is going too far off topic. Forgive me. After seven months together, Hiroshi extended an invitation to stay with him in Japan. On my second visit to Tokyo with my company, I accepted. Like so many other Japanese young employees, he was indifferently paid and overworked. He lived in a rickety, post-war dosshouse at Ikebukuro. I can still smell the mildewed age of that edifice. It frankly should have been condemned. Rather, it would have been condemned had it not been for the seventy-odd boarders who would otherwise have to be housed in places they could ill-afford. In that queer Japanese tradition, shoes were left by the front door. On day I saw a pair of obviously cheap shoes that had been resurrected more than once. I never learnt who owned them and I never saw them again. But I will never forget that. It symbolises something of the struggle that so many young Japanese face.

I was fortunate this time. I was able to book a hotel room overlooking Ueno Park. In the early spring nights the plum blossoms take on a phantasmal quality under lantern-light. This is the time of the year that the elderly undertake that great Japanese tradition, ume-mi, plum viewing. This is the quieter, less known counterpart to the viewing of cherry blossoms – hana-mi – that takes place a month later. Hana-mi is for the young. It’s also become almost forced. Groups of semi-inebriated university students sit about under cherry trees because they feel compelled to do so. No, I have left that part of youth behind. It’s one of the great pleasures of passing thirty and being established in a career. I am growing more naff with the passing of each season and I can find no reason why this is a bad thing. Really, it’s liberating. I’ve paid my dues and can now enjoy an ever more agreeable ennui.

Thirty storeys below me office ladies and salarymen stumble home, past the burn-outs and failures of society. Underneath the road bridges tents stand providing their flimsy protection from Japan’s cold spring nights. It’s 10:20 in the evening. Tomorrow, I will return to Sydney. Tomorrow evening the buskers will stand by the entrances soliciting a few coins in exchange for their songs. Those made redundant will bide their time before returning home, pretending that nothing has changed. A cheap beer or two will provide cover. After work he had to go to a nomi-kai, drinking party. Many know that they will have to, sooner rather than later, take any employment they can find. But for now, saving face is imperative. They simply cannot bring themselves to admit that their employers could no longer keep quite so many people on staff. The vagrants will loiter where they can, people fallen too far for redemption, like Brahmins who ate beef.

I will return in autumn. Arne will be with me. I can’t deny him his wish to be with me after I tore him apart for having left me. Yet he was there. He was always there, even when I refused to accept him. Like the plum tree, he kept his promise to replace that which the wind carried away.  I can’t well play the wrongly-done when he kept his word and I took advantage of someone even more vulnerable. I will have to admit that I was wrong.


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