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Subway Surrealism August 5, 2004

Posted by LHK in Japan.
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I love how Haruki Murakami writes about Tokyo:

Supposing I found myself chasing another fly ball and ran head-on into a basketball backboard, supposing I woke up once again lying under an arbor with a baseball glove under my head, what words of wisdom could this man of thirty-odd years bring himself to utter? Maybe something like: this is no place for me.

This occurs to me while I’m riding the Yamanote Line. I’m standing by the door, holding on to my ticket so I won’t lose it, gazing out the window at the buildings we pass. Our city, these streets, I don’t know why it makes me so depressed. That old familiar gloom that befalls the city dweller, regular as due dates, cloudy as mental Jell-O. The dirty facades, the nameless crowds, the unremitting noise, the packed rush-hour trains, the gray skies, the billboards on every square centimeter of available space, the hopes and resignations, irritation and excitement. And everywhere, infinite options, infinite possibilities. An infinity, and at the same time, zero. We try to scoop it all up in our hands, and what we get is a handful of zero. That’s the city. That’s when I remember what the Chinese girl said.

This is never any place I was meant to be.

— from “A Slow Boat to China,” Haruki Murakami

I was on the Sobu Line a few weeks ago, pressed up against the door by the bodies and shopping bags and strollers of a typical late Saturday afternoon in an atypically hot (or so I’m constantly told) Tokyo summer. And I was thinking, if all obligations and longings of the American life were suddenly nonexistent, if I was no longer able to joke with my co-workers about how embarrassing it’d be to stay in Japan for another year and realize I’d missed my own wedding, if I was free to trot the globe without guilt or worry or those strange sudden aches I get to be listening to Jimmy Buffett while riding down Peachtree Street in Adam’s Toyota or eating at Waffle House; would I stay here? Would I take on Tokyo for another year? Would I take the karaoke rooms and the evil bakeries and the 5:02 AM Ginza Line departing from Shibuya? Would I be up for another year of transferring through two gray subway stations in March to be able to see the cherry blossoms in an artificial-as-Disneyland park at the end of the train tunnel? The girls with thighs as thin as my wrist, twisting about in their Pinky and Dianne skirts on a Sunday morning Sobu Line, munching on 7-11 bread wrapped once in honey and sugar and then again in cellophane, and punctuating every sentence with a breathy-yet-guttural, ne?

I watched the rapid train pass our train, saw the people pressed up against its windows the same way we were sniffing the plexiglass of the Sobu Local Line, saw how still and expressionless they looked as their eyes caught mine, wondered what they were thinking about, wondered if they, too, had become complacent about the city’s facade of complexity, only to be occasionally shaken awake — after a while, your eyes become accustomed to all these rooftops you must look down upon from the train tracks, the ones that used to shock me when I first came here. How could the city continue in so much thick sameness? One apartment building after another, packed in beyond the horizon. I live in a town much the same. When I go out running and try to take detours, I have to be careful not to get lost, to get swallowed up by the unrelenting density. I’d have to run for literally hours to reach a clearing, and that clearing would probably be Tokyo Bay.

I was so shaken, almost horrified, by all this when I came here, but lately it’s just been part of the scenery. I forget to look most of the time. Mostly, I just look down at my book, or stare some kanji in the face until I can decipher a bit of it.

But, sometimes, a train will pass mine, and on the other side of that train will be a city so surprising in its sheer mass, and I will stare at it wide-eyed, amazed at the fact that I have been able to dig out a little life in a concrete building on this city’s outskirts.

Those people on the train, staring in at me on my train, they also live in this city, and they look so sad.


Yesterday, Andrew caught sight of Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes resting on top of my water bottle inside my gold floral bag from Hong Kong. “Ah, I see Murakami’s got ahold of you, too.”

“Yep,” I said. “I just started that the other day, and it’s hard to put it aside for even a second. I was reading it while walking down the hallway of my apartment.” True.

“His stuff’ll do things to you while you’re living here. I swear, when I was reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, as the dude’s life started to get more fucked-up and unreal, mine did too.”

It seems that the bulk of Murakami’s work takes place in a slightly surrealistic version of Tokyo. This is dangerous for people like me and Andrew. Because we have to live in a separate version of Tokyo from most Tokyoites. They can eavesdrop on train conversations, and understand the smatterings of daily speech heard below their apartment balconies. They can take one glance at a train advertisement and know exactly how Suntory is trying to get you to buy their bottled oolong tea this week. And while I’m less illiterate than I was when I came here, I still can’t understand enough of my world here to fully assimilate into it. So I must rely on the reports of others: my students, a few fluent co-workers (“Look, that place above our office isn’t an abortion clinic,” Grant said the other day, interrupting the speculative conversation of Mert and Melanie. “I know you see a lot of crying women coming down from there, but I swear it’s a computer school. I can read the sign”), and now, Mr. Murakami.

And Murakami’s version makes sense to a baffled little blue-eyed victim of cultural incompetency such as myself. He’s made me realize that Tokyo has been a surreal city to me the entire time I’ve been here; how else to describe a place where I can only understand a small percentage of what is being communicated? How else to describe a place where the girls can eat 7-11 pastries all day and not gain an ounce? How else to describe a place where people do not understand the concept of a yard?

(Typical conversation heard when I am teaching Level 7B, #13, “Rob Dillon Isn’t Happy”:

L (pointing to picture in book): This is Rob’s yard.
Student: Yard? Same as garden?
L: No, no. Garden — small. It’s where you grow flowers and maybe vegetables. Yard — large area of grass.
Student: (baffled look)
L: Umm… I guess you’ve lived in Tokyo your whole life.)

If little green monsters were to show up outside my window (possibly in the garden beneath the stairs of my apartment building), I wouldn’t be terribly shocked.

edit, 4 years later: I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that the student could have been using UK English, in which a yard is called a garden.


But I love how Tokyo has made me a writer again, in that I sit here nearly every night at the dining room table, typing away out of actual inspiration rather than some tight-lipped obligation to a self-created website. After a while, I’ll stand up and realize I’m sweating. Indeed, I almost always forget to turn on the air conditioner (until Ngo comes home and declares that it is so freaking hot! And, if Kristy is home, she will quietly correct her. Fucking hot, Ngo. FUCKING hot), though at least I never forget to drink water. Tokyo forces frustration and speculation and constant, constant attention. Perhaps that is why I don’t sleep very much — close your eyes here and you’ll miss something spectacular. I’m writing journal entries in my head the way I used to when I was in high school and college, though at least I don’t try to take up some sort of physical residence in those journal entries the way I used to. The journals are written about the event, rather than the event being created around the journal itself. That’s … ummm… healthy or something, right?