Who do you think I was, Teddy Ruxpin?

That was printed on some kid’s shirt the other day. I saw it when I went to Japan’s version of Target, called Itoyookado (I think). Afterwards, I went to Seiyu, which is Japan’s Walmart. It is owned by Walmart, I believe: you can get certain Walmart brands there, and even it’s layout is vaguely Walmart-esque. These shops are just a twenty minute walk from my host family’s house.

 Down from where they live is a very busy trains station hub, called Akabane Station, which services Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Ueno, and even Shibuya, I believe. Near the station are many of these big chain stores. I think it’s much like the States: these big chain stores exist primarily on the periphery rather than in the center of the city. There’s a Sports Authority there, as well as big chain bookstores. Where I’m at, in Shimo, it is somewhat removed from the central hub of Tokyo.

I went to these stores with my host sister. She asked “Can you ride a bike?” I said yes, I do it all the time in Portland. She then showed me the tiniest backyard, with a patch of grass that was about the size of a beach towel. There were three crusier style bikes living in the backyard, so we took two of them and headed out. There are no helmets; largely speaking, people don’t use lights, and the traffic laws are kind of vague. But I followed her, through streets that can barely fit one car, through pedestrian-heavy intersections where you have to just dodge people, on sidewalks, on the wrong side of the streets, and so on. We went through a covered area that was just for pedestrains and bicycles, called “La La Gardens.” Then we arrived at Itoyookado and Seiyu. It seemed really dangerous, but that was what was  exhilarating about it. To tell the truth, it was really fun.

The host family, so far, has been pretty cool. The host sister is an IT tech for some American company, and had lived in Portland for a year or two when she was in high school. She also lived in Canada for a few years, near Whistler, in order to snowboard;She surfs every weekend, too. She makes frequent trips to the states to visit her old host family. Needless to say, her english is just about perfect.

The mother is a part-time real estate agent. And, she’s a true Tokyoite: she has generations going back to the neighborhood which she lives in. She knows Tokyo very well, which means she knows the train and subway lines very well. Tokyo is really navigable by its trains, and that’s how people know this city. Most of the streets don’t have signs, or names, but there’s always a train line or subway line close by. Only very large streets have names. It’s tricky for newcomers, but the train system is starting to become easier as the days go on.

The other day I walked around with the resident director for the Oregon program. She’s sort of an advisor, someone who helps us with the details, and she’s also teaching a class at Waseda for the semester. Normally a UofO professor, she has spent the last fifteen years on and off coming to, or living in, Japan, for research or travel. She’s another one who knows Tokyo neighborhoods pretty well; she just released a book studying the culture of Tokyo trains and subways. She’s a self-described “Otaku.” That word used to just mean someone who was obsessed with digital culture, or electronics. The Tokyo district of Akihabara is known for its swarms of Otaku people. Nowadays, it’s become short-hand for nerd, and is applied to many Americans. 

Otaku guys and Otaku girls, I think, are quite different. There’s usually a certain type of American guy who comes to Japan, sad to say. One is the guy who’s absolutely obsessed with Anime and Manga, and feels that if they come to Japan they’ll finally be able to fuck a submissive Japanese school girl who’s been waiting her whole life to have sex with some mouth-breathing kid just barely out of his teens. The other stereotype is the guy with “yellow fever,” who might not be obsessed with manga, but is a sort-of frat-boy who’s obsessed with Japanese girls. In short, they come for the girls.

The type of American girl who comes, I can’t say for sure. I think that there are a few who totally want Japanese boyfriends, though I’m not exactly sure why. I’m not sure either what the resident director’s obsession with Japan is all about, but it hardly matters. She is a breath of fresh air: it was nice to finally be able to walk around and go to a cafe with someone who could hold a certain kind of conversation. To my mind, I keep sounding like an elitist. But you know, I don’t care about someone’s party night last night; especially not some twenty year old who’s having it for the first time. It’s an exciting time for them, surely, since many in this program are only twenty, and twenty is the drinking age in Japan. With a few exceptions, that’s about all I’ve heard coming out of these kid’s mouths.  I’ve found that if I’ve tried to engage in conversation that’s something more than that, it seems to fall a bit flat. I think they feel like I’m prying into their personal lives because I ask questions about their interests and what they’re studying or if they are enjoying their host families or if they are liking Japan.  As mentioned, with a few exceptions.

We walked around the French area of Tokyo, looking at the French bakeries and restaurants, and then settled on one of her favorite cafes for lunch and dessert. As many who read this know, I’m an Otaku for sweets, so this was pretty great. In general, there are many places in Tokyo to get amazing pastries. That’s been my pastime: walking around the city, trying to find the cheap good food. There’s lots of it, too, mainly around the Waseda campus.

On our walk, we went down a main street called Yaskuni-Dori, on which the well-known Yaskuni Shrine exists. The shrine is near the Tokyo Diet building, and the Imperial palace, and has one of the most impressive Genkans (which is Japanese for “gate,” I think) I’ve ever seen. Here’s a picture of it:

This picture may give it justice, but maybe not. It towered over our heads. This is a close-up on my camera. This is the entrance to the shrine, which takes up quite a bit of real estate in an extremely expensive part of Tokyo. I believe that it used to be a government sponsored shrine, but after World War II, the new consitution basically separated church and state, which meant militant Shinto from the government. So now, the Yaskuni Shrine is kept up by private funds.

Here’s another picture of the shrine, when you are on the grounds:

This is like the picture you’d see on Wikipedia if you typed in “Yaskuni Shrine.” It is a controversial site for a few reasons. Yaskuni Shrine is for all of Japan’s war dead, since the Meiji Restoration. It is said that once a name is added to the grounds, or whatever, it cannot be removed. It is merged with the spirit, so to speak. From what the resident director had told me, some people have tried to sue to get their son or relative’s name out of the Yaskuni grounds. The reason for this is because it houses some of the “spirits” from WWII, including some of the highest ranking soldiers who were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as Hideki Tojo. This shrine also includes the names of Koreans who were forced to fight for the Imperial army. Awhile back, Japan’s Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, paid his respects on, I believe, August 15th as a tribute to the WWII dead. This single act had created a diplomatic problem between China and Japan and Korea and Japan, who’ve felt that the Japanese have been a bit too slow or reluctant to address their role in the war, and that it was acts like this that hindered diplomatic relations. A valid complaint, I feel. To my knowledge, Japan has never paid any sort of reparations to these countries, nor to the other countries it had, basically, enslaved, whereas Germany might still pay reparations to Israel. It might be the case that a formal admission of guilt requires a reparation plan. But you know, guilt and suffering transcend generations, and it’s not like the memory of that war will ever go away.

After looking at the Yaskuni Shrine, the resident director and I went into the museum that is right on the grounds. She said it’s worth looking at. We went into a pretty small building, but there was very large war memorabilia there. A fighter jet. A section of a train. I couldn’t read the descriptions but I asked the director about it. She said the plaque with the description was euphemistic, or maybe evasive: it told you that this train served the Imperial Army during the war transporting soldiers, but what it didn’t tell you is that it was used for transporting Manchurian prisoners of war. There was also a gift shop full of revisionist DVDs and CDs, about Japan’s glorious sacrifice during the war and its noble cause, as well as plenty of Japanese flags and keychains and shit. The director said that some of the DVDs were instructional; they were for teaching young children about the war. Japan has been criticized for having this revisionist teaching in some history books, where Korean comfort women or the Rape of Nanking or Unit 731 are totally left out.

We only stayed for about twenty or so minutes because the museum is not that big. In the next building on the same grounds there was an exhibit dedicated to Japanese baseball. Sure, why not?

Apparently, the shrine is funded by Japan’s right wing. I am fascinated by Japan’s right wing because nobody wants to talk about it, it seems. I am sometimes hard pressed to get a straightforward answer from a Japanese person on things like the Ganbare Nippon (or Ganbare Nihon) rally or the Yaskuni Shrine. Forbidden territory, methinks. I’ll see what I can find.

It’s now Oregon-style weather. Starting to feel more at home.



3 responses to “Who do you think I was, Teddy Ruxpin?

  1. No, that picture will not give the gate justice. It must go out and seek justice for itself, dealing out fisty fireworks to those whose perfidy laid it low.

    That shrine thing is all kinds of fucked. Although when you consider exactly how ubiquitous equivalent things are in America (to be kind about it)…Well…

  2. Sure. If anything, going there was a lesson in how similar the extreme right-wing is everywhere you go. Same themes: wanting to maintain a static form of history that presents a comfortable narrative of how we got to where we are now. Blemish free.

    Already on this trip I’m breaching the wall of Hello Kitty! and Manga and flashy advertisements that seem to, almost, entomb the city. I’m hearing and/or seeing different aspects of the culture by just walking around and exploring. In a way, it’s better to be in Tokyo since this is the city of cultural misfits, so to speak. However, I still get distracted by lots of things. It’s easy to do in this city. It’s been pretty fun so far.

  3. Yes, it’s “do” it justice rather than “give” it justice, ain’t it? The gate hasn’t been dealt an injustice, as far as I know…

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