The Foreign Rational

The world seen through the eyes of a life-long nomad

Top image by Andre Benz on Unsplash. This article was first featured on Medium.

In June, I wrote a piece on the hardships of living in Tokyo as a foreign white guy. Back then I promised myself I would write the other side of the story; about why I love my Tokyo lifestyle so much.

But since then, I’ve been struggling. Turns out, writing a love letter is harder than I’d expected.

We all have our reasons for living where we live. For some, it’s necessity. For others, it’s custom. For me, it’s passion.

To understand why for me, there’s only Tokyo, I would have to take you on a grand voyage. An epic tale that would take a far better poet than me to write.

But I’ll do my best, sharing with you a few snapshots I’ve taken over the years. Just keep in mind these are but a few frames in an ongoing production. If you want the full panoramic experience, hop on a plane and come see for yourself.

Mount Fuji in the distance. Taken on a hike in Yamanashi prefecture, a weekend trip from Tokyo

A place

I’ve been prey to this weird phenomenon: every time I try to write about Tokyo, I go off on a dozen tangents. I write everything that comes to mind, try to connect the elements of my story, realize the final product is long and disorganized, erase a dozen paragraphs, and start again.

The reason I can’t tie my thoughts to a single narrative thread is that everything about Japanese culture is connected. I can’t talk to you about how beautiful the city is without talking about Japanese culture. I can’t talk about the culture without the people. I can’t talk about the people without the history. Ad infinitum.

But I have to start somewhere. And let’s start in a specific place, Shinjuku Station — a major hub on the west side of downtown Tokyo — on a specific date, in the spring of 2014.

I’d graduated from my internship at my first job, and finally had enough money saved up for my first big solo vacation. I wanted to go somewhere safe, clean and relaxed, but fundamentally different from the Western world.

I remembered growing up watching Japanese animation, preferring their wild imaginative story lines to the more limited narratives of Western TV series. I remembered a friend I’d met in university, how polite and curious she was, how easy it was to talk to her. I remembered a colleague I’d come across working in Switzerland who, after a long day’s work, would loosen his tie, head down to the only Japanese grilled chicken restaurant in the city, and down half a dozen beers while reminiscing with the shop owner.

It was settled. I bought my tickets to Tokyo.

My university friend recommended staying in Shinjuku because it gave easy access to a lot of train lines. What she didn’t explain is that Shinjuku itself is bigger than most of Switzerland’s cities. The west side is home to tall government buildings, you’ve got Korean town on the north side, then a fashionable shopping district on the south side, and to the east, the notorious Kabukicho — Japan’s most prolific red light district.

The cheap hotel I booked happened to be east.

I got out of the train on a clear evening and for the first time in my life, I felt completely disoriented. Around me, everything was flashing. Neon signs. Thousands of people rushing in different directions. Brightly lit storefronts every few meters. No landmarks. None of the straight-line streets you’d get in a city like Manhattan. Nothing but urban jungle; a tangled mess of sound and color as far as the eye could see.

The red arches of Kabukicho at night. Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

Getting to the hotel was a journey. I started off walking in entirely the wrong direction until a friendly foreign resident took pity on my wandering soul and lent a helping hand.

In the ten minutes it took me to find my lodgings, I walked across a six-lane road, through a lovely little temple, down a street lined with more bars than I’d ever seen in my life, then down another street lined with more pimps than I’d ever seen in my life. My hotel was behind two big batting centers filled with baseball fans.

Proof that in Kabukicho, there’s no shortage of stick-based entertainment.

Seven years have passed since then, over five of them as a Tokyo resident. Yet that first experience still crystalizes what to me makes Tokyo so exceptional. Walk ten minutes from Shinjuku station in any direction and you’ll have yourself an adventure.

You may end up in the gorgeous park that is Shinjuku Gyoen. Or in a tiny underground heavy metal dive bar. Or in a giant modern cinema. Or with a panoramic view of the city from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Or in a Korean supermarket buying noodles so spicy they’d probably be illegal in Europe.

There’s more shopping, food and entertainment available within that tiny radius than in most cities I’d ever been to. And Shinjuku station is just one of several giant hubs around Tokyo.

Many writers talk about the metropolis’ extraordinary architecture, mixing tradition and nature with the needs of a hyper-modern city. They mention the artistic subcultures, fancy cafes and quirky stores. What they say is true, but going one by one over the city’s amazing places is, in my view, missing the city’s greatest appeal.

They’re describing each jewel without mentioning the crown.

Tokyo is the world’s most dynamic living organism, constantly shedding and growing itself anew to adapt to the needs and wants of its residents. It never fails to provide grounds for wonder and discovery, all the while maintaining safety and hygiene. Everyone’s journey through Tokyo may look similar from afar, but zoom in and you’ll find that no two paths are ever truly the same.

Tokyo tower, taken from Shiba-koen during the cherry blossom season.

It’s what I love about Tokyo, the place. Our relationship is crafted in consort with millions of others, yet remains uniquely my own. Every day begins a new chapter, brimming with boundless potential for discovery and adventure.

A people

There are a lot of stereotypes out there about what Japanese people are truly like. I’m not an ethnologist or a social scientist of any kind, so my perspective on the matter is limited to the few people I know.

Ethnically, Japan is extremely homogeneous. The country has in many regards withstood foreign influence, or at the very least been cautious over what to import and what to leave out. It’s no surprise that immigrants like myself find it difficult to build meaningful friendships with Japanese people. Difficult, but not impossible. If you scratch the surface of what may appear like an imposing monochrome cultural barrier, you’ll find beneath a colorful patchwork teeming with diversity.

Japan is home to all sorts of people, but there are several general common traits that pervade its society. Overall Japanese people tend to be rather polite and reserved, yet extremely attentive to their surroundings. The Japanese education system is known to be monolithic, rewarding students for fitting in and following the rules, rather than for sticking out and expressing their individuality.

A famous expression I’ve heard from many Japanese friends is deru kui wa utareru (出る杭は打たれる), the nail that sticks out gets hit.

The result isn’t that Japanese people have less individuality, but simply that they express it less, or differently. It takes more work to break through people’s barriers and understand what truly motivates them. There are even words in Japanese for the face you show in public, or tatemae (建前), and your real thoughts and opinions, or honne (本音).

Once you come to terms with the fact that what you see isn’t what’s actually there, it becomes easier to cultivate deeper friendships, albeit with only a few people. I’ve found my Japanese friends to be generally warm, curious, open-minded and interesting people. And in a city the size of Tokyo, I was able to make all sorts of connections with residents who share my hobbies and interests.

Taken during the lantern festival as Yasukuni shrine, pre-pandemic.

I’ve also found that Japanese are not less judgmental than Europeans or Americans, but express their judgment differently, or on different topics.

For example, I find Tokyoites quite open about other people’s hobbies. I enjoy video games and science fiction, which had me labelled as a nerd by many people my age in my home town, but is seen here as unremarkable, or even interesting. On the other hand, Japanese people are much less forgiving on social order and hygiene matters. My girlfriend thought I was dirty for not having a handkerchief on me at all times.

In my defense, public restrooms in Switzerland are generally equipped with dryers or paper towels, which isn’t the case in Japan. And while many Japanese men may carry handkerchiefs, I can assure you they don’t all wash their hands. But I digress again.

It’s easy to get caught up in statistics or broad preconceptions when it comes to Japanese people. From a personal perspective however, it doesn’t matter if a slice of the population feels uneasy or doesn’t want to engage with foreigners. You’ll only ever end up meeting a tiny percentage of everyone in Tokyo.

A temple in Inokashira park at the beginning of cherry blossom season

Unless you’re a genuinely terrible human being, most of Japan will at least tolerate you. What I love about Tokyoites is that among the more open and curious crowd — which is plenty large — I wholeheartedly believe you can make meaningful, enlightening relationships.

A culture

After five and half years living here, I can unequivocally say I still know terrifyingly little about Japanese culture. One of the marvels of such a homogenous society is what they may lack in cultural breadth, they more than make up for in depth. Each individual element of traditional Japanese culture contains enough subtle complexity to keep the passionate busy for a lifetime.

A common value many people here share is that you can choose what you want to do, but once you make your choice, you have a responsibility to do it well. The essence of this way of thinking is symbolized in the Japanese word ganbaru (頑張る), which loosely translates to “doing one’s best,” and is ubiquitous in daily interactions between Japanese people.

That and otsukaresama (お疲れ様), which literally originates from an expression meaning “you look tired,” but has become the standard positive thing people say after a long day of ganbaru-ing.

This conception of a proper way to live one’s life extends beyond the workplace. For instance, you may notice a lot of traditional Japanese pastimes end with do, like judoaikidosado (tea ceremony), shodo (Japanese calligraphy), kendo, and so on. That do comes from the Chinese character , meaning “path.”

There’s an art to everything — even an activity seemingly as simple as pouring a cup of tea — and each art form comes with its own path, which one can spend a lifetime walking down.

Illuminated parasols in Gotenyama, courtesy of my friend Ade.

However, just because one can spend a lifetime on a single path doesn’t mean that everyone does. Western media has a tendency to greatly exaggerate this path-taking mentality — I’ve heard so many people tell me about how sushi chefs have to spend 10 years learning to make an omelet before they get to touch their first piece of fish, which simply isn’t true. Japanese society definitely values discipline in learning, but not to the point where it would defy all common sense.

Nevertheless, the results of discipline and cultural depth are breathtaking. The reasons Japanese streets are so clean, temples are so beautiful, food is so delicious, and people are so polite all stem from the common cultural roots of dedication to a job well done. It’s also no surprise that foreigners who come to Japan with little consideration for learning proper etiquette have trouble fitting in and making friends.

Being exposed to this culture for an increasingly large slice of my life has also pushed me to reflect upon my own values. I realized my writing hobby won’t bring me long-term satisfaction unless I treat it like its own path. I have to write often, publishing regularly, and embrace that my early work might be quite terrible, but can lead me to a better place over time.

I was also taught to question my preconceptions of the duties and obligations I have toward others, as a member of a complex and bustling society. There are plenty of Japanese social norms I refuse to embrace, but by knowing they exist and how they differ from the norms I grew up with, I get to make a conscious choice about who I want to be as a person.

Skyscrapers on the western side of Shinjuku Station, courtesy of my friend Ade.

That’s what I love about Japanese culture. It’s deep, different and beautiful in ways I couldn’t possibly have imagined possible, had I not decided to settle here. It has shown me a new dimension of the human experience, a slice of which I have chosen to make a part of myself.

In writing these lines, I realize that Tokyo isn’t the greatest city in the world for everyone. We’re all entitled to figure out for ourselves the lives we want to lead, and the conditions necessary to lead them. But it’s definitely worth at least a visit, especially if you have an interest in any particular facet of Japanese culture.

Who knows, maybe we’ll run into each other and can compare notes. I’m no great poet on my own, but if we harness the power of Tokyo, surely together we can come up with some breathtaking poetry.

2 thoughts on “A White Guy’s Love Letter to Tokyo

  1. Jake W says:

    Congratulations on being featured in Medium!


  2. I myself have been to Tokyo once, and really loved it there. Maybe it’s a bad place to be based in, but as someone who was merely visiting, I love how the city was tailored to introverts, a detail I still can’t get over. Anyway, thanks for this post!


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