The Beauty and Tragedy of Tokyo

I told a Chinese friend I would stop in Tokyo on my way home. “Tokyo is a beautiful city,” she said. “Sort of,” I said. After a day in Tokyo, I realized she was right. Tokyo is beautiful, not sort of beautiful. Tokyo business signs and outdoor advertising aren’t beautiful but they are swamped by many things that are:

  1. Small irregular streets. On foot, the weird address system works fine.
  2. Plenty of parks and greenery.
  3. Many small neat attractive shops selling a huge variety of goods. A miso store, for example. Many parts of Tokyo are like Greenwich Village, in other words.
  4. Clean convenient free public restrooms. Unlike other cities, as I’ve said.
  5. Excellent service in shops. Unlike Paris and Amsterdam.
  6. Excellent map and direction signage. In subways, for example, way-finding signs tell the distance, not just the direction, of the destination. This is so basic (distance and direction are orthogonal) yet other places, such as New York, don’t do it. Such creative attention to detail, such improvement on something so old (wayfinding signs) isn’t just helpful, it’s inspiring. I came across a construction site sign that appeared to say how loud the work would be. Again, serious improvement on tradition.
  7. Everyone I asked for directions was helpful, although many were surprisingly ignorant (e.g., didn’t know which direction to Roppongi).
  8. So very walkable. Partly because the streets are curvy, partly there are so many little interesting things everywhere I went but also because when I got tired of random wandering, I could simply go to the nearest subway station and get to my ultimate destination.
  9. The proportions of buildings. Slightly thin, slightly tall.
  10. The repeated exterior details of apartment buildings. They are not smooth slabs. They have visible balconies, stairs, etc.
  11. The food shops in the basements of department stores. There are dozens of small booths. One sells miso, another sells pickles, a third sells salads, a fourth sells eel, and so on. Not only is the food itself often beautiful — Japanese food packaging is supremely lovely — but it is beautifully arranged. You could learn a lot about aesthetics (the hidden laws of beauty) by comparing these displays with similar (less attractive) displays in other countries.
  12. Clean air, clean streets. In spite of heavy use.
  13. Well-maintained neat small houses.
  14. Temples scattered throughout the city.
  15. Healthy-looking people, especially old people. I think it’s all the fermented food they eat (e.g., miso, pickles),  not the health-care system.

I did not find Tokyo expensive, even with the dollar way down against the yen. I never took a cab (and never wanted to — in Beijing I always want to). Equated for quality, I think Tokyo is cheaper than New York.

The tragedy of Tokyo is the lack of human diversity: few foreigners. Such a great city should draw people from all over the world, but it doesn’t. It has a a lot to teach the rest of us about how to live in cities (for example, where does Japanese perfectionism come from?) but somehow this sharing hasn’t happened. Like a cure for cancer in a journal no one reads.

17 Responses to “The Beauty and Tragedy of Tokyo”

  1. Shawn Says:

    “The tragedy of Tokyo is the lack of human diversity: few foreigners.”

    Its lack of diversity is its strength as it allows the city to be composed of people who are relatively high-IQ. If Tokyo had diversity more like NYC, for example, the city itself would resemble the deficient NYC.

  2. Andy C. Says:

    Thanx, very poetic !
    I am looking forward to visiting such an interesting city !

    Bye,

    Andy C. – Italy

  3. gwern Says:

    > Excellent map and direction signage. In subways, for example, way-finding signs tell the distance, not just the direction, of the destination. This is so basic (distance and direction are orthogonal) yet other places, such as New York, don’t do it. Such creative attention to detail, such improvement on something so old (wayfinding signs) isn’t just helpful, it’s inspiring. I came across a construction site sign that appeared to say how loud the work would be. Again, serious improvement on tradition.

    I recently binged through 4 of Edward Tufte’s books, and I couldn’t help but notice how many of his graphics examples were Japanese. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some connection to kaizen and artisanal pride and lifetime employment.

  4. Ashish Says:

    Seoul is similar in many respects – even including the distances on the subway signs, which are comical when pointing out an entrance “5 meters” distant, i.e. right in front of you.

    I wonder how much of this can be generalized to other Japanese (and Korean) cities.

  5. Gayle Says:

    Apropos #11: have you ever seen the book How to Wrap Five Eggs by Hideyuki Oka?

  6. Kevin Says:

    Really? I found Tokyo the prototypical ugly industrial city utterly lacking in any kind of charm whatsoever. Its a typical Asian *shambles* city (everything is thrown together higgledy piggledy without any regard for aesthetics or beautiful architecture) . Many of your points refer to convenience and not beauty. For me, a really characterful city would be Amsterdam, London, Paris, Rome – now THAT is beautiful. New York and Boston are much more beautiful than Tokyo also.

    Whats *beautiful* about Tokyo is not the setting, which is ugly, but the human element – not in the sense that they are especially beautiful per se, but rather because they all make an effort to be wonderfully thin and fit looking and dress exquisitely and often even picturesquely. The human element represents the true *beauty* of Tokyo.

  7. Seth Roberts Says:

    “Many of your points relate to convenience.” True, but I would put it differently: Many of my points relate to great care taken with small things. To me, this is beautiful.

  8. D Says:

    “Its lack of diversity is its strength as it allows the city to be composed of people who are relatively high-IQ. If Tokyo had diversity more like NYC, for example, the city itself would resemble the deficient NYC.”

    Bingo. Such an obvious point it’s amazing that it had to be said. But it did.

  9. E Says:

    If you want to experience a vibrant, diverse city you might try Detroit.

  10. Shawn Says:

    D,

    Seth is very smart guy; funny how very intelligent people can miss such obvious things…

  11. Deidre Says:

    The WSJ has a wonderful piece “Made Better in Japan” in case you missed it:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204542404577157290201608630.html?mod=WSJ_Magazine_LEFTSecondStories

  12. garymar Says:

    Deidre, pretty good article!

    There’s a long-running Japanese manga series (started in 1983) called Oishinbo, which has also become an animated series, a movie, and even a game. It’s all about a group of food reporters who visit restaurants and have various food and cooking-related adventures. Remember, this is a cartoon.

    During the New Year holiday I caught a rerun of the animated series on TV, and the storyline was about a bartender and his little bar in Shinjuku. One of the reporters said this bar had the best on-the-rocks whiskey in town, so they all went there, drank some, and agreed it was tops.

    But the owner was sad because he had to close the bar soon. Why? Because the rural company that made his ice was going out of business, and without that special ice, made from the water coming from a particular well, he couldn’t make the best on-the-rocks ever. So the plot was how the gang went off to the country and solved his problem by securing his ice supply!

    The whole story was presented as a crisis of conscience for the bar owner. If he couldn’t make it just so, he wouldn’t make it all – he refused to break faith with his customers. Just another indicator of the level of obsession they bring to food here.

  13. Traherne Says:

    Diversity?!?!?!

    Merciful Father…
    Right. More black people! More chicanos! Invite the world! That’s exactly what Japan needs…

    No. The only reason why Japan can have such a orderly, united, peaceful country is precisely because of it’s homogeneity. Let it be.

    “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”

  14. Seth Roberts Says:

    The only reason why Japan can have such a orderly, united, peaceful country is precisely because of its homogeneity.

    I did not praise Tokyo’s order, unity, or peace. I praised its beauty. If by “order” you mean clean public bathrooms, I don’t agree that diversity must surely cause dirty public bathrooms.

  15. Traherne Says:

    Right. Diversity wont surely cause dirty public bathrooms because in a more diverse society there wouldn’t be pristine public bathrooms to sully in the first place.

    Neither would there be much beauty without order, unity, and peace. There are sociological preconditions to the beauty and unique culture of Japan. A high level of trust is one of them. And high levels of trust and other forms of social capital are inversely correlated with diversity.

  16. Traherne Says:

    Also, like you point out above about how care taken with small things is a form of beauty to you, consider the contribution that things like perfectionism and orderliness &tc make to your perception of beauty.

  17. Sadie Says:

    I also loved Tokyo for all the reasons you describe so beautifully. I particularly liked that that many people have small gardens, some just six inches wide or in wall-mounted planters, and everyone hung their laundry out to dry. The sheer practicality of nearly everything was so appealing.