ONE 3 • Under the Rising Sun: Some Impressions of Japan

Science-fiction author CHARLES STROSS really has seen the future, but he didn’t need a crystal ball or a time machine to do it. All it took was a long-haul flight to the other side of the world…

They’ve got our future, damn it! It’s not the shiny future of jet packs and food pills—oh no, that’s not what Japan is about—nevertheless, they’ve got it and they’re living in it.

They’ve got express trains that run on time and accelerate so fast they push you back into your seat like an airliner on take-off. They’ve got skyscrapers with running lights looming out of the sodium-lit evening haze—a skyline just like the famous night-time scene from Blade Runner except for the shortage of giant pyramids (and they’re building one of those out in Tokyo bay). And they shave their cats.

In the future, we’ll all have shaved cats. And six-storey-high pornography boutiques that sell Hello Kitty novelty toys on the ground floor. And 200-mph super-express trains blasting between arcologies, hurtling through a landscape scorched by the waste heat of a hundred million air-conditioning units. And beer vending machines on street corners. And skyscrapers cheek by jowl with temples that are modern reconstructions of buildings dating back to the eighth century (said reconstructions only slightly older than the Christopher Wren iteration of St Paul’s Cathedral).

Welcome to Japan…

I came for the World Science Fiction Convention in Yokohama. Jet-lagged and half-addled from the flight over, my partner Feòrag and I somehow managed to stumble onto an express train at Narita International Airport. Narita is one of Tokyo’s airports, but it’s far enough away that, if you swapped Tokyo with London, it would be somewhere in Wales…

The train was our first moment of culture shock—seats as wide and spacious as those in business-class on a 747, and a glass-smooth ride. But fast trains that run on time and don’t come with polyhedral wheels aren’t a novelty if you travel in Europe: it just served notice on us that our airliner hadn’t sneakily flown in circles for the past ten hours.

It wasn’t until we arrived at the Sakuragicho Station in Yokohama, emerging from the ground, blinking like naked mole rats and twitchy with impending jet lag, that I began to internalize where we were. And that’s the odd thing: on arrival I was drenched by a maddening sense of familiarity, as if I hadn’t gone very far at all.

In the future we’ll all have shaved cats.

Japan is familiar. It’s as close as the back of your own head. From the Sony or Panasonic brand on your television set to the cars in the street driving on the left, it all feels familiar, except for the jolts of mind-numbingly intrusive alienation that keep landing on you whenever you forget to feel at home.

Take the journey from the railway station to the convention hotel… I spotted the row of columns supporting the arched roof, the familiar signs and on-ramps, and realized I’d fallen into one of Robert A. Heinlein’s science-fiction stories: the roads must surely roll, and roll is what the moving walkways surely did, about half of the nearly-a-kilometre distance to the conference centre and the convention hotel. But then it was time to get off the walkway and tow our luggage, like bugs crawling across the polished marble floors of a succession of ever-larger shopping malls, built to the proportions of vaulted medieval cathedrals, each one vaster and more imposing than the last.

Japan is clearly a nation that worships shopping, a nation that has taken the retail experience to its bosom and raised in its honour a frenzy of poured concrete and burnished chrome, a hypermarket for saints. You can wander into a Japanese department store and lose an entire day without even scraping the surface of the mall it’s embedded in.

My personal nemesis is Yodobashi Camera: a place that has a clothing and houseware department embedded in it where most such shops would feature an electronics boutique department. Half of the sixth floor of its Yokohama branch is given over to capsule toy vending machines, where you can turn the knob for 200 yen (about 80 pence) and acquire a tennis-ball-sized bundle of mysterious plasticky goodness with a model kit of some complexity within. My favourite (which Feòrag acquired from a capsule toy machine at Puroland, of which more later) is a capsule toy that contains a self-assembly model of a capsule toy machine, complete with tiny capsule toys ready to vend. Even the toys teach recursion…

Yokohama is Japan’s second-largest city after the monster that is Tokyo; it’s a pretty impressive size in its own right. With about four million people and a predominantly industrial base, it’s the nearest thing you’ll find to a Japanese equivalent of Birmingham—if Birmingham sprawled so far that its outer suburbs meshed with those of mega-London. And as with Brum and the big smoke, the best shopping is reserved for the special retail districts in the metropolis.

Akihabara is a market district. Narrow alleyways carve up blocks where covered market buildings divided up into tiny stalls rub shoulders with electronics boutiques. The market stalls sell … stuff. I found myself in one market where the vendors specialized in obsolete equipment: at one stall, a glass-topped jewellery counter displayed long-out-of-date but guaranteed working computer processors, all pinned to their anti-static foam mats like extinct rainforest beetles.

Tokyo left me feeling like an illiterate Albanian shepherd teleported without warning to the UK, staring slack-jawed in wonder at the vast, gleaming, powerful public works of metropolitan Huddersfield, reeking of wealth and efficiency and a goat-free future. From the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper, I looked out across the high-rise skyline, red lights blinking fretfully in the grip of a typhoon as winds strong enough to blow sheets of rain up the glass of the window rumbled around me, and I realized: this future has no place for goats.

Of course, Japan isn’t all skyscrapers, or shopping malls, or ungulent unpersons. It’s a real place, with real people living in it, sliding past the windows and around you on the pavement and the subway, and sometimes talking. And it’s a real place with a countryside and plants and insects and birds, muck and soil between your toes. I don’t do muck and soil: I prefer my nature tamed and theme-parked, and my insects quiet.

We arrived during cicada swarming season in Tokyo. Tokyo isn’t particularly quiet at the best of times (we are talking about a city where a big expensive house might have a garden almost a metre wide separating it from the street on one side and its neighbours on the other), but the cicadas are something else. When you have to shout to be heard speaking above the noise of insect mating calls, it’s pretty clear that nature doesn’t care how much concrete you pour—it’s going to demand the last word.

All that concrete and air conditioning can’t spare you from the muggy climate when you go outside. There was a heatwave in August, with temperatures topping forty degrees; by September, things had moderated to the low thirties in Tokyo and Yokohama. One day in Yokohama, when the heat was too intense, Feòrag and I got out of town and headed for Hakone in the hills. You don’t get hills like these in the UK. For one thing, they’re incredibly steep—but what makes the difference is that every available slope is covered in green. Nothing tells you that you’re living in a high-energy-input biosphere with maybe thirty per cent more daylight per year than cliff sides covered in frenetic solar-powered hermaphrodites.

Hakone is a hot spring resort in the mountains. We ascended about 550 metres on a remarkable 1930s high-altitude railway, its two creaking carriages taking slopes of up to one-in-ten and making several switchbacks into sidings along the way. We spent most of an afternoon there in the Yunessun spa, which offers a weirdly commercialized version of the traditional Japanese bath house.

The spa boasts something like twenty-three different bathing options, including an outdoor trail that meanders around a geyser and a Shinto shrine between hot springs and flumes, by way of a coffee-flavoured pool and a sauna hut. Bathing there is an exhausting experience, entailing much running around and queuing. Luckily, the Garra rufa fish in the final bath will be happy to nibble away the dead skin of your newly formed calluses; unluckily for us, we missed the regular scheduled appointment to be eaten by a shoal of fish and had to leave in time to make our rail connection back to Yokohama.

Japan isn’t just the land of extreme bathing, it’s also the home of ubiquitous toddler icon Hello Kitty. For reasons too arcane and embarrassing to explain, I spent most of a day exploring Puroland, an indoor Hello Kitty theme park situated in Tama New Town, one of the sprawling Tokyo suburbs. Puroland is like Disney World, but compressed to bonsai proportions, installed inside a huge squash court and pickled in saccharine.

Everything inside Puroland is colourful; indeed, it comes in every colour you could possibly want, just as long as what you want is some variant of pink. The usual fairground and theme park attractions take on a slightly crazed, pre-hyperglycaemic edge as the cat goddess with no mouth—for Hello Kitty is clearly the kami of kitsch—stars in a beautifully choreographed (if somehow aseptic and unthreateningly sterile) musical extravaganza. During the finale, she throws a giant party, and descends from the gallery wearing a gown illuminated by a thousand winking LEDs as hordes of uniformed toddlers in colour-coded caps scream and wet themselves with joy. By the time Feòrag and I made our escape, by way of the inevitable photo-op, I was wishing for a brace of Daleks to frighten them all back behind the sofas.

I may sound churlish, but the total asphyxiating impact of being surrounded by a million reflections of Hello Kitty and Dear Daniel and their friends—who are so optimally innocuous that they make Mickey Mouse look like a slasher movie monster—is ultimately oppressive. (NB: I have not ascertained as of this time whether or not Hello Kitty is shaved. She certainly sheds, but pink spangles…?)

It’s hardly a secret that Japan is a crowded archipelago, but to get a feel for what this really means, I’d recommend a monorail journey. Japan probably has more monorails than the rest of the world put together (I told you they’d got our future!) and most of them are fairly cheap. Take a commuter train to a terminus, pay for your ticket—200–300 yen, or maybe 650 yen for a day pass—and ride up and down the monorail, street-watching.

These pocket railways generally run on overhead tracks, ten metres up, above most of the suburban rooftops. The houses huddle together with barely a gap, punctuated by public playgrounds and tiny parks the size of a British suburban garden. Even the obviously wealthy (with Bentleys and Rollers parked ostentatiously in their carport) lack insulation.

Japan is familiar. It’s as close as the back of your own head.

I’m told the custom when you buy a house is to knock it down and build a new one in its place—after all, construction is cheap compared to land, and who wants to live in a used house? But high-rise apartments seem to make up the majority of housing, and custom has yielded priority to structural engineering in the small matter of buying and selling flats. I have an unnerving feeling that I’m mirroring the reactions of an American citizen of exurbia visiting Britain’s crowded inner-city estates: how do they manage to live there, so close together? Part of the answer can be found in any estate agent’s window—three bedroom houses at a price that translates into the low millions of pounds—and suddenly Japan feels disturbingly familiar all over again.

At street level, the congestion tends towards extremes unheard of in the UK since the last of the rookeries was demolished by public-spirited Victorians. This really brings itself home when you try to locate a backstreet bar and restaurant. If you’re lucky, it’ll open off the stairwell of a commercial block—lucky because it’s easy to find. If you’re unlucky, you’ll find yourself in an alleyway that’s literally ten centimetres wider than your shoulders, going back and back until it ends in a pool of light around a sign advertising Asahi beer, in front of what looks like somebody’s
back door.

A cat, sitting in a cardboard box on a table in the window next to the door looks at you lazily and yawns, and you wonder if this is really a restaurant. Then you hesitantly open the door, and see a cluttered bar with menus on it, and a staircase off to one side. As you sit and work your way through a creditable meal, you realize that the yard is indeed someone’s backyard—because the staircase leads up to the owner’s apartment, and her family are going in and out about their business even as she holds court over the counter top.

The cat jumps out of its box and you see that its coat is curiously brindled, almost like a Rex—but it’s not a Rex. It yowls irritably, and jumps down to commence an inspection tour of the restaurant. You look closer, and notice a poodle bob on the end of its tail. Yes: someone has clearly shaved this cat.

Japan seems to have an oddly self-effacing relationship with its long history, as a few days in Kyoto will reveal. Kyoto, the former imperial capital, looks like just another modern Japanese city at first. But then, as you’re walking through a shopping arcade that specializes in commercial catering supply shops (such as the shop that sells nothing but cash registers, or the signage supplier), you spot a gap between two stalls—and plugging it, the courtyard of an ancient Buddhist temple, sharing a cigarette with the high wooden archway of a Shinto shrine.

There’s a sign in front, with an English translation, so you pause to read it: “Founded by the abbot… around 768… burned down during the wars … this is a modern reconstruction…” And you’re about to walk away, disappointed, when you read the final words: “…created in 1633.” It’s just as much a modern replica as the Christopher Wren reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral—and yet, the same language is used of reproduction castles cast in the concrete of 1930s modernism, or Buddhist temples from the fourteenth century.

There are eighteen World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, sprinkled across the malls and bypasses and office blocks of an otherwise modern city like the pockmarks of an infectious history.

If Kyoto were a British city, the entire place would be pickled in a bell jar of planning orders and heritage commission reports, and the residents would perpetually be grumbling about the lack of parking spaces and the impossibility of getting permission to put up a satellite dish. But Kyoto doesn’t care. Its houses and offices are transients, a fluid sea of habitation that ebbs and flows and throws up a spray of eight-storey-high department stores and electronics warehouses and porn shops to break around the rocky outcroppings of historic monasteries, temples and shrines.

On our last day in Kyoto, Feòrag and I left our hotel to head down town. As we descended the steps into Shichijo subway station, an elderly fellow rushed over.

“Hello! Remember me?” he called. (Apparently we’d met him a couple of days earlier, in a haze of shrine-going that ended with us both getting templed out.) “Here, please can you help me?” His spoken English was heavily accented. He dug around in his belt pack and pulled out a sheaf of papers which he thrust under my nose. “Can you proof-read?”

It took us a quarter of an hour to disentangle ourselves from his polite but insistent demands that we check the English vernacular in his papers. These turned out to be part of the second edition of a huge Japanese–English dictionary—which, as Professor of English at Kyoto University, he was editing. Self-effacing politeness is a fearsome weapon: between us, we checked at least five pages before we realized escape was possible.

In self-defence, I have to admit that I’m not used to being mugged on the subway by feral English professors and forced to proof-read Japanese–English dictionary entries: I have entirely the wrong reflexes for such social situations and so, as you’re trained to do when confronted with a situation that promises embarrassment, I tend to go with the flow.

Enough has been written about Japanese society and how it differs from Western cultures to fill whole libraries, and most of it is rubbish. When you get down to it, Japanese people are no more and no less human and variable than anyone else. But I submit that, when you live in a country so densely populated that it makes London and the commuter suburbs of the South-east look like West Texas, a tendency to conform to expectations in social situations isn’t just about being a doormat, it’s a vital survival reflex.

Japan balanced on the edge of a Malthusian population trap for nearly a millennium, in a way that the British isles only approached in the nineteenth century: too many people, not enough space, and no escape. It’s like a huge, lumbering spaceship adrift in a sea of possibility—a generation ship that has filled all its living spaces over the centuries, with nowhere for surplus mouths to go.

These living conditions place a mould around the behaviour of the people who live with them. Take the wearing of uniforms, for example. In the UK, with a few exceptions—such as the police, military and fire brigade—we respond poorly to being put in a uniform; it’s a sign of depersonalization and strips us of our individuality. In Japan, however, uniforms are everywhere. Even people who don’t have to wear them seem to gravitate towards workwear that’s standardized in its appearance: taxi drivers dress in dark suits, peaked hats and white gloves. Uniforms confer status—a uniform is a sign that you belong to some greater social context, to a corporation or a shop or a school, something important.

And so, we have an island safe for eccentric English professors; an island where outward conformity provides an ill-fitting disguise for social experimentation and strange subcultures; an island where people live like the crew of a generation starship in flight towards the future, nevertheless dragging the scars of ancient history behind them; an island of monorails and shopping malls and coin-operated Ramen noodle stands and spas with twenty flavours of bathing feature.

I’m still scratching my head over it all, and wondering how much I missed (and how much of a fool I sound like to everyone else who’s been there). But I do know one thing—I want to go back again.

Born in Yorkshire, Carles Stross currently lives and works in Edinburgh. He has published eleven novels, and his work has been translated into French, German, Czech, Russian, Spanish, Japanese and Bulgarian. His latest novel, Halting State, is published in the UK by Orbit and in the USA by Ace.