Tokyo: An Insider’s View

Yuko Uchikawa

Tokyo: An Insider’s Viewwith Yuko Uchikawa, a Japanese born, California and New York bred, graphic artist and self defense instructor who guides us through Japanese culture with candor and grace.

Since hightailing out of Japan at age nine to live in Santa Cruz, California, with an elderly American couple who offered to put me through school, I have shuttled back and forth between Japan and the United States from an early age. While I have been fortunate to be able to participate in both cultures, I also battle a kind of schizophrenia one can feel as a result of this duality. My work takes me to Japan about twice a year to teach women’s self-defense (makearuckus.org & makearuckus.org/japan). In Brooklyn, where I live in the states, I do a combination of self-defense and conflict resolution work along with graphic design specializing in photography books.

To me, the beauty and the demise of Japanese culture is its collectivist nature. “We” comes first, not “I.” This makes it very easy to adopt overarching rules, like setting our thermostats to 27 degrees celsius in the summer to save energy. Everyone may be sweating it out in their office buildings, but it’s for the good of our country. An age old saying, “Any nail that sticks out, hammer it in” describes how we feel about being different. No one wants to stick out. “But look at those teens in harajuku!” you might counter. Take a closer look at them. They are in uniforms, and move in groups. They do stick out from the mainstream adult culture, but their fashion is prescribed within each subgroup. We struggle as a people to find a place in this fast-paced, creative world, and often fail. While we’re great at copying an idea, and making it better, smaller, prettier, it’s not so easy for us to come up with something truly innovative–that’s what we’re good at in the United States, where we’re encouraged to shine as individuals and think outside the box.

My self-defense class--my energetic and wonderful participants, showing their moves

As a working woman in Japan, and someone who is involved in teaching safety awareness for women, I think about how the status of women here has changed over the years. We used to say that Japanese women were about twenty years behind women in the United States. Lately, I would say it’s closer to fifteen, but not much better. An example: we are plagued by gropers on subways in the cities, and our solution is to implement a very reductive system that herds women into a “women only car” during rush hour. This phenomenon reminds me of when India put a curfew on women because there were so many rapes in the country. In response, Indira Gandhi said, “let the rapists be under curfew, not the women.” While in the states, we struggle to break through the glass ceiling, in Japan, we often make reference to a solid steel ceiling. I am not sure if I will see a female Prime Minister in my lifetime, let alone a Prime Minister of Korean descent (there are many Koreans living in Japan, born and raised here who face discrimination on a daily basis). We still hold on to the ridiculous and obsolete imperial family as our “symbol,” when all they really do is sit on top of the most expensive real estate in the middle of Tokyo.

But ok, one thing the Japanese do that is truly out of this world and unparalleled, is cook great food. The passion we have for food, for eating, for preparing and presenting it in just the right way, is often exemplified on television. I am always amazed at just how many programs that have nothing much to do with food will have a food segment! Pretty much every time I turn the TV on, there is a close up of some B-level star with his or her mouth wide open, shoving some delicious food item into their bellies. Another indication of Japan’s culinary excellence is the sheer number of restaurants that exist in cities like Tokyo–there may be as many as 80,000!

The woman responsible for my love of food--my mother!

My mother lives in Nagoya where there is nothing at all interesting to see, but I dream about the places she has found to eat. Many are small, and seat no more than ten. Menus , if there are any, are all in Japanese making it difficult for tourists to partake in this deep food culture unless they have a Japanese friend with excellent taste. I often end up in the places where I can sit at a counter. The chef cooks in front of me and we watch each other–I watch his every move (most often it is a man), and he watches me eat out of the corner of his eye. There is a sense of “This food is FOR YOU,” and often we let the chef serve whatever he wants to present (this is called an “Omakase,” meaning “it’s up to you”). In Japan, people communicate by other means than just verbally–we’re a very reserved people–so food is one way that people communicate, and through this counter-eating one gets the sense that the chef is telling you some serious stories through his food.

Man cooking at the counter, one of my favorite chefs in Minami Azabu Jyuban.

African American visitors tend to be rare in Japan. People here are polite and friendly in a quiet way, but there is racism and bigotry like any other country. Behind the scenes, you will hear racist sentiments against Koreans, Filipinos, and Chinese, and against laborers from the Middle East. There are not enough people in this country willing to do the “dirty” work such as construction, so Japan admitted laborers from various countries in the Middle East. I often hear, “our country has gotten quite dangerous lately… it is all the foreigners.” But the situation, in reality, when you watch the news, is that we’ve got our home grown terrorists and criminals abducting kids and murdering other Japanese. It is not the “foreigners.”

Attitudes toward African Americans, are complicated. Hip hop is revered by young people, so Black is cool. Older people have no contact with Black people so there is a bit of “dark equals scary”. A friend of mine here has an English teacher who is black, and he cannot stop saying “my Black English teacher.” He would never say “my white English teacher,” but, he loves his teacher and thinks he’s cool. I assure you and will apologize in advance that you will get some very stupid and annoying questions from Japanese people. The difference will be that it will not be laced with violence the way racist questions and interactions can be in the United States.

A lovely aspect of Japan, particularly in Tokyo, is the old neighborhoods that still exist, tucked away between pristine high rises. Nakameguro was a gritty part of town back in the day. It was “shitamachi”–literally meaning downtown, but that didn’t mean Greenwich Village, it meant it was d-o-w-n, like low. Walk a few minutes to the streets of Nakameguro now, from the JR station of the same name, and you will see that it has been transformed into a beautiful, but quiet district lined with tiny independent stores so specialized that, in the United States, would not stand the chance of surviving a month. The neighborhood sits along a canal, with cherry blossom trees on both sides. Small bridge roadways connect the two narrow streets that shoppers walk along. None of the stores is more than 500 sq ft. It seems they took what once was the first floor of each residence and converted it into stores. The retailers range from designers’ clothing to a store specializing in bonsai (miniature trees, an art form in Japan). There is an amazing tea house there, that serves green tea (of the tea ceremony kind) and cocktails until 2 am, with handmade, delicious Japanese sweets.

Store where they sell Bonsai, Nakameguro.

For me, Tokyo is less the neon and more the small neighborhoods that have survived and retained their character throughout the turbulent economic and cultural history of Japan. Nakameguro is one of them, but there are many others, such as Nezu, Sangenjaya, and Minami Azabu Jyuban. These are small districts that still have the local fish store, butcher, the rice cracker shop, noodle restaurant, and sometimes a tofu shop, a rarity nowadays. The other day, when I was walking along the store-lined street of Sangenjaya, I came upon a tuna cutting event. The local fish store brought in a medium sized tuna from Tsukiji (the famous fish market) a MUST see for visitors, especially the Tuna auction which starts at 5:30 am. Workers at the store were slicing the tuna in public and selling chunks at a reduced rate. Minami Azabu Jyuban has one of my favorite rice cracker stores, that has one of the most delicious sesame rice puffballs with a peanut inside that I have ever tasted.

A wholesaler slicing tuna with a long knife, tsukiji fish market.

If you are planning a trip to Japan, head over to your local independent bookstore and order the guidebook “Gateway to Japan” (publisher: Kodansha), organized as a guidebook but it’s better for getting a sense of Japanese history, told through the cities of Japan. Other great reads: David Mitchell’s “Ghost Written,” Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronical,” and if you’d like a closer look into the imperial family of Japan try getting through “The Commoner” by John Burnham Schwartz. If you love films, check out “Lost in Translation,” and rent two films by Juzo Itami: “Tampopo,” to get a sense of our relationship to food, and “The Taxing Woman,” a comedy about a tax collector from the Japanese equivalent of the IRS.

A parting thought for visitors to Japan: Once, when I was about to go on a trip, rather than tell me to “be careful and take care,” my dear Japanese American friend used to say, “Drive fast and take chances.” Do just that in Tokyo, though let the fabulous train system do the driving, and take chances gastronomically!

One of my favorite chefs, creator of the beautiful dish in the black bowl above.

My warmest thanks to my friend, Yuko Uchikawa, for all of her contributions to this article, including the photos she has taken over the years in Japan (long before digital cameras, I might add), her candid insights, and her quick and thorough draft.

xoxo, Stephanie

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