Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Tokyo Is New York Squared

As a lifelong New Yorker, I really never expected to visit a city that made me feel like a hick. But that is how Tokyo is making me feel.

For one thing, there is the sheer size and glamour of Tokyo's business district. New York City has a couple of neighborhoods and specifically a handful of streets that feel like world-class commercial centers, comparable, say, to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. They include Fifth Avenue between 42nd Street and 59th Street; Madison Avenue in the fifties, sixties, and seventies; 57th Street between Lexington Avenue and Broadway, and a couple of others.

By contrast, Tokyo seems to have a dozen Fifth Avenues--broad streets lined with huge upscale stores (from Prada and Coach to Burberry and Takashimaya, each significantly more impressive than their New York counterparts) as well as dazzling, ultra-modern fifty-story glass office towers, neon "spectaculars" advertising brands from around the world, and hundreds of restaurants crowded with dapper businessmen, stylish young women, hip couples in sunglasses and dyed hair, etc. etc.

Then there is the technical and esthetic quality of the infrastructure. Naturally not everything in Tokyo is beautiful or modern; here and there you encounter a squalid block strewn with litter and inhabited by a homeless man in rags. But the physical quality of the buildings and artifacts you'll encounter on the average street is extremely impressive.

Signs on the street corners and in the railway and airport terminals boast crisp, clear, multicolored LCD displays of a resolution and legibility far exceeding anything I've seen in the US. Elevators, hallways, and lobbies of ordinary hotels and office buildings are cleaner, fresher, and more handsomely appointed than those in New York's luxury buildings.

And as everyone knows, the bullet trains are amazingly fast, comfortable, and almost entirely silent. I took one for an hour-and-a-half journey between Tokyo and Nagoya, covering 238 miles. The same trip would take at least three hours in a conventional American train--and the train wouldn't be staffed by conductors and waitresses in impeccable uniforms who bow when they enter and exit your car.

Finally, there is a quality of sophistication and graciousness, at least on the surface of Japanese life, that is hard to define but unmistakable. The constant bowing, thank-yous, and minor acts of deference are part of it. So is the persistent, subtle blending of world cultures into the Japanese substratum, evidenced not just in the ubiquity of brands and pop culture images from America and the rest of the West or the widespread use of English but in the relatively thoughtful understanding of American social, political, and economic issues on the part of my Japanese counterparts. They know much more about my background than I do about theirs, which makes me, comparatively speaking, a barbarian.

I've been in Tokyo all of three days and I am living the life of a privileged tourist and business person, which means that all my observations are inevitably shallow, one-sided, and probably naive. Like every culture, that of Japan has its tawdry, vicious elements, some of which we've even heard about in the West--the racial prejudice, the misogyny, the nihilism of some youth and the mindless wage slavery endured by some salarymen.

But any American who visits Tokyo for even a few days should come away cured of the widespread assumption that the United States represents the highest current point on the evolutionary scale of capitalist society.

New York is a beautiful, dynamic city; I love it, and it will probably always be my home. But Tokyo is New York squared.

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