Mount Fuji

Mountains and deserts 

Tokyo is a city of mountains and deserts. The mountains are not soaring peaks with clouds drifting far below them, but rather the main railroad stations. The deserts are not relentless wastes of burning sand, but rather the areas between the stations, yet the effect is much the same.

Tokyo's Akihabara 'Electric Town' districtThere is no major city in the industrialized world as disorganized, as difficult to find your way around in, or as lacking in news and information as Tokyo. Addresses are anarchy and the system is close to being completely arbitrary. Finding an unknown address is difficult and frustrating. Nor is there any real way to find out what is going on in Tokyo. It has no local papers per se, and the papers sold in Tokyo are all big national papers with multi-million circulations which pay scant attention to local Tokyo matters.

A Tokyoite — the tag comes with no particular sense of pride — moves around through a fog of unknowing. Kenzaburo Oe, a Japanese Nobel laureate for literature, once made an attempt at a popular mystery which he called “The Shattered Map.” This describes to perfection the situation of the average Tokyoite.

Yet in complete contradiction to this confusion is a system of almost rigorous logic laid over Tokyo. In a sense, the system is three-dimensional, because is runs on the ground, beneath the ground and above the ground: it is the Tokyo rail system. Because it is organized with a brilliant simplicity, even an illiterate or someone who does not speak a word of Japanese can find his way around Tokyo with ease — that is, until he steps out of the train station. At that point he will be lost, like everyone else in Tokyo. Journeys crossing the city involving countless transfers between a plethora of lines can be undertaken with your eyes shut; but step out of a station and you will waste hours trying to find an address 10 meters (yards) away from the station, if you can find it at all.

The station has an importance in the life of a Tokyoite that it would never assume in any other city. The station is like a mountain that dominates everything around it. Wherever Tokyoites live, this is the real point of contact with the outside world. There is a verb in Japanese for “going to meet someone.” Although there is no verb that specifically means “going to meet someone at the station” perhaps there should be. Lined up in front of every station you will see scores of people waiting for someone to come and meet them to guide them to a local spot they would have difficulty locating otherwise.

The comparison to a mountain is not just a social metaphor, it is also physical. The station is the most prominent structure in the entire neighborhood, sometimes cutting entire ku (boroughs) in half. But more importantly, many of the major stations also have a gigantic department store in, on, around and through every part of the station. In effect, in many major stations it is almost impossible to go through the station without in part entering or passing through some part of the department store. Some stations even have two or three department stores in or attached to the station.

With the station being the most important point of any neighborhood, and in effect, dominating it, the department store in turn dominates the business of the entire district. No one would say that the Saks 5th Avenue department store dominates the business of Manhattan; owners of fancy boutiques on Madison Avenue would laugh at the notion. But in Tokyo, because of the intense difficulty of finding anything and the ultimate convenience of their location, department stores have come to control retail business.

The upshot is that everything else is so hard to find that there is little choice other than to go to the department store, even if choice is limited and the prices much higher. This in turn has created a situation of mountains and deserts unique to Tokyo. The stations with their department stores are the mountains, where commercial life flourishes. Every step you take farther away from the department store or station, the deeper you plunge into outer darkness — at least of the commercial sort. From about 100 meters (yards) out from the department store, business, in effect grinds to a halt, and vast areas around the department stores are “deserts” where no business can thrive.

If you manage to get far enough from a department store, some residential businesses reappear, such as grocery stores and bakeries, and even some shopping streets will make their appearance. The scale is very modest indeed, with all the “real business” going to the department stores.

Tokyo, rather than being a city, resembles nothing more than an agglomeration of factory barracks or living units arbitrarily stuck in to every odd corner between a highway or railroad, with no idea of community or livability. The combination of the prominence of stations and department stores in the rabbit warren arrangement of Tokyo has strangled any of the unique small businesses or business communities that give charm and convenience to cities all over the world. There is not even an upper-crust district where tiny boutiques cluster together. Stores like Cartier, Hermes, Coach and Fendi are all found inside department stores.

If there was ever a city which has cannibalized itself, it’s Tokyo. Built with no direction, it has allowed the railroads and department stores to devour the city.

What is even stranger is that Tokyo and its outlying areas, Chiba, Yokohama and Saitama, are unique in this aspect in Japan.

Osaka is as easy, or easier, to get around as any American or European city. The same for Kyoto and Sapporo and any number of other Japanese cities. In these cities neighborhoods are vibrant and classy shops are to be found in upscale areas. Yes, there are department stores in these cities too, but they are no more nor less important than department stores in Paris, London or New York.

Tokyo is the most recent of all Japanese cities, none of which are very old. Kyoto dates to about 900 AD, by which time cities such as Rome, Paris and London were all nearly a thousand years old. Osaka got its start in the 1500s on the site of the fortress of a religious group, and Tokyo dates from the later half of the 1600s.

Of all Japanese cities, Tokyo is the most recent other than Sapporo. Yet it is unique in its impenetrability, its lack of history — other than its disasters — and its feeling of confusion and temporariness. Rather than feeling like a city, it feels more like a herd huddled together for some type of psychic protection. It can be said — with allowances for exaggeration — that Tokyo is the worst enemy Japan has. Tourists are told that it is not the real Japan. Indeed, this may be true. But it is Tokyo, with its mountains and deserts, that sets the tone for all of Japan, and in the end, this really is the real Japan.

Editor's note: Bill Stonehill hails from Chicago, Illinois. Trained as an engineer and China specialist, he has now been living in Tokyo for well over 20 years. He imports Swiss watches, is expert at taking them apart, and if anyone knows what makes Japan tick too then he does. From 1999 until 2001 he wrote a regular Japan column for the Morrock News Service (sadly discontinued), which was enjoyed by Web-surfers around the world. We greatly appreciate the author's allowing us to republish some of his very best articles here in Japan Perspectives.