Tokyo through the letterbox

Reams have been written about the suicide-as-spectacle of novelist Yukio Mishima’s death; less, perhaps, about the cartographies and circumstances of his birth. He was born Kimitake Hiraoka, on January 14, 1925, the first child of a civil servant, of a family of what would once—then, indeed—have been called “very good stock”, and his wife, of a family of Confucian and Chinese scholars, in Yotsuya, once on the fringe but now already in the heart of a Tokyo that was rapidly expanding and shifting its center of gravity westward, in a district known then as Nagasumi-cho (永住町, “long dwell town”, although he would be gone from the neighborhood by the age of eight) but which was reorganized and renamed Yotsuya 4-chome in a municipal redistricting on April 1, 1943 (one would have thought they would have had better things to do), before being pulverized to smithereens by American air-raids less than two years later.

Before the Meiji Restoration, Nagasumi-cho had formed part of the Tokyo estates of one of the three noble branches of the house of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Tayasu Tokugawas, but by the early 20th century, it had fallen on its uppers, and was home to a couple of dozen cheap lodging houses, of which this drably fading hostel, the Nagaragawa, where rooms can be had for Y4,000 ($50) a night, is the spiritual successor.

Mishima describes the family and house into which he was born in his almost wholly autobiographical but unreliably narrated novel, Confessions of a Mask (1949), the book which made his name, thus:

…My family began sliding down an incline with a speed so happy-go-lucky that I could almost say they hummed merrily as they went—huge debts, foreclosure, sale of the family estate, and then, as financial difficulties multiplied, a morbid vanity blazing higher and higher like some evil impulse.

As a result, I was born in not too good a section of Tokyo, in an old rented house. It was a pretentious house on a corner, with a rather jumbled appearance and a dingy, charred feeling. It had an imposing iron gate, an entry garden and a Western-style reception room as large as the interior of a suburban church. There were two stories on the upper slope and three on the lower, numerous gloomy rooms, and six housemaids. In this house, which creaked like an old chest of drawers, ten persons were getting up and lying down morning and evening—my grandfather and grandmother, father and mother, and the servants.

私の家は殆ど鼻歌まじりと言いたいほどの気楽な速度で、傾斜の上を辷りだした。莫大な借財、差押、家屋敷の売却、それから窮迫が加わるにつれ暗い衝動のようにますますもえさかる病的な虚栄。
―こうして私が生れたのは、土地柄のあまりよくない町の一角にある古い借家だった。こけおどかしの鉄の門や前庭や場末の礼拝堂ほどにひろい洋間などのある・坂の上から見ると二階建であり坂の下から見ると三階建の・燻んだ暗い感じのする・何か錯雑した容子の居丈高な家だった。暗い部屋がたくさんあり、女中が六人いた。祖父、祖母、父、母、と都合十人がこの古い箪笥のようにきしむ家に起き伏ししていた。

(On inspection, it occurs to me that the original translator, Meredith Weatherby, one of a coterie of gay Americans who were to generously dominate the narrow neck of the funnel through which Japanese arts reached the wider world in the years after the war, has some of this wrong, not least the implicit reference to a five-storied house, when the original says, ambiguously, that the house had, or appeared to have, two stories when viewed from the upper reaches of the slope, and three stories when viewed from the lower reaches, but we know that as early as 1952, six long years before publication in English, Weatherby and Mishima discussed the translation in New York, so I defer—and anyway, I digress.)

Declivities are important here: there is the metaphoric incline down which the family fortunes begin to slide, mirrored by the slope on which the old rented house precariously rests, and there’s one more slope that matters, the one on which Mishima, as a boy of four, has—by his account—his erotic awakening:

It was a young man who was coming down toward us, with handsome ruddy cheeks and shining eyes, wearing a dirty roll of cloth around his head for a sweatband. He came down the slope carrying a yoke of night-soil buckets over one shoulder, balancing their heaviness expertly with his footsteps. He was a night-soil man, a ladler of excrement. He was dressed as a laborer, wearing split-toed shoes with rubber soles and black canvas tops, and dark blue cotton trousers of the close-fitting kind called “thigh-pullers”.

The scrutiny I gave the youth was unusually close for a child of four. Although I did not realize it at the time, for me he represented my first revelation of a certain power, my first summons by a certain strange and secret voice. It is significant that it was first manifested to me in the form of a night-soil man: excrement is a symbol for the earth, and it was doubtlessly the malevolent love of the Earth Mother that was calling to me.

坂を下りて来たのは一人の若者だった。肥桶を前後に荷い、汚れた手拭で鉢巻をし、血色のよい美しい頬と輝く目をもち、足で重みを踏みわけながら坂を下りて来た。それは汚穢屋ー糞尿汲取人ーであった。彼は地下足袋を穿き、紺の股引を穿いていた。五歳の私は異常な注視でこの姿を見た。まだその意味とては定かではないが、或る力の最初の啓示、或る暗いふしぎな呼び声が私に呼びかけたのであった。それが汚穢屋の姿に最初に顕現したことは寓喩的である。何故なら糞尿は大地の象徴であるから。私に呼びかけたものは根の母の悪意ある愛であったに相違ないから。

(Weatherby reorders the Japanese, as is his prerogative. Let’s re-unpack a little of it using the tried-and-true four-step formula of the late, lamented Mangajin magazine.
坂を下りて来たのは一人の若者だった。
Saka wo orite kita no wa hitori no wakamono datta.
Slope (object marker) descend-came (of + topic marker) one-person (of) young-person was.
A youth came down the slope toward us.
肥桶を前後に荷い、汚れた手拭で鉢巻をし、血色のよい美しい頬と輝く目をもち、足で重みを踏みわけながら坂を下りて来た。
Koeoke wo zengo ni ninai, yogoreta tenugui de hachimaki wo shi, kesshoku no yoi utsukushii ho to kagayaku me wo mochi, ashi de omomi wo fumiwakenagara saka wo orite kita.
Night-soil buckets (object marker) front-and-back (place marker) bear-on-shoulder, was-dirty hand-towel (as) headband (object marker) did, blood-color (of) good beautiful cheeks and shines eye (object marker) had, feet (by) heaviness (object marker) distribute-by-step-while slope (object marker) descend-came.
Bearing a yoke of night-soil buckets fore-and-aft on his shoulder, wearing a dirty hand-towel as a headband, with handsome ruddy cheeks and shining eyes, the youth balanced the heaviness of the yoke with his footsteps as he came down the slope.
それは汚穢屋ー糞尿汲取人ーであった。
Sore wa owaiya—fun’nyo kumitorinin—de atta.
That (topic marker) night-soil-man—feces-and-urine ladle-person—was. 
He was a night-soil man, a ladler of excrement.

One thing the English loses, in the transitions from “blood-color” to “ruddy” and from “feces-and-urine” to “excrement” is the bond being tentatively forged by Mishima between blood and feces, a theme to which we’ll return, and it helps to know that Mishima was nicknamed “Aojiro” [“Blue-white”] at school for the pallor of his complexion—but I digress.)

The locus of Mishima’s desire, he goes on to say, is on the dark-blue “thigh-pullers”, part of the uniform of laborers still worn occasionally today, and the night-soil man’s occupation itself, although he then claims that he had “a misconception of the work of a night-soil man” and soon transfers his ardor to “the operators of hana-densha—those streetcars decorated so gaily with flowers for festival days—or again to subway ticket-punchers”—particularly the latter and “the rows of gold buttons on the tunics of their blue uniforms”.

What was once Nagasumi-cho is bounded to the east by another residential district, to the north and south by two major arteries, Yasukuni-dori and Shinjuku-dori, which were there in the days of Mishima’s youth, and bisected to the west by another major artery, Gaien Nishi-dori, which was not. The quarter into which Mishima was born, to the east of Gaien Nishi-dori, is tiny, at most 500 meters north-to-south and 250 meters east-to-west. Flat to the south, to the north and west it declines perhaps 20 meters in altitude to meet the major arteries—this is where Mishima’s formative slopes lie. Although I’ve lived for a nigh on a dozen years a two-minute cycle ride from it, and passed the mask it presents to the world on the major arteries measureless hundreds of times, I realize I’ve never once penetrated beyond the mask, down its somnolent streets and tangle of lanes where, in the deepest recesses of the warren the alley is so narrow, so private that to set foot in it feels like intrusion.
Although I have the prewar address for Mishima—Nagasumi-cho 2-banchi—and three maps to guide me, one from 1936,

one showing the redistricting of neighborhoods in 1943,

and a contemporary book of Tokyo street maps,

the address is too amorphous and the layout of the streets has changed too much to do more than stab a guess at its precise location, so I resolve to wander down every street and stairway, every passage and slope, and see what turns up.

It takes a moment to register from the exterior what the Horaiyu, a sento, a neighborhood public bathhouse, is—the giveaways are the chimney and the sign for hot water (ゆ) on the curtain behind the entranceway.
“Not many of these left,” says the passing Frenchman.
“No,” I concur, “I don’t think I’ve seen one in years.”
The sento is flanked, not only by a brace of vending machines, but by a pair of laundromats.

“Interesting architecture. From the sixties, I guess. People bring their washing here, have a bath, go home, everything’s pikapika,” he exclaims, using the onomatopoeia for a state of resplendent cleanliness.

The Horaiyu survives because, as it was in Mishima’s day, the neighborhood is pockmarked by poverty. To be sure, in this central and hence desirable neck of the woods some gentrification has occurred—a huge shiny new condo edifice has sprouted at one corner, a crop of smart townhouses has taken root at another—but there are plenty of shabby old blocks of one-room apartments lacking bathrooms, or even space for a washing machine, dotting the district.

The Meiwaso, the Mitsuiso, the Kawakamiso, how cruelly they taunt their occupants with the suffix for “villa” or “manor” (荘) that they all share in their names, how little, it is patently clear, their slumlords spend on their upkeep, how much it costs—about $500 a month—just to rent one of these tiny, tiny toeholds in the center of the capital. No Poggenpohl, no Aga, no Miele here, no kitchens at all: if you’re lucky, a one-ring gas stove on a bench to reflect your no-ring loneliness. I’ve been close to down-and-out in urban Japan, I’ve seen these places from the inside, and I well know they’re slit-your-wrist suicide traps, one misstep from death—or life on the street.

Some of the tenants are just transients through poverty, penurious students from the provinces scrimping by on what their parents can send them and their arbeit part-time jobs can pay them, but others—that never-married middle-aged woman who cleans your office toilets, that widower with his baton for directing traffic at construction sites, that barely employed aspiring singer growing too old for the game—they are stuck here for good.

“You’re still in Edo,” continued the Frenchman, using the old name for Tokyo. “Up there, at the big intersection, there are some old stones that show the boundary between the city and the country, you know, when Shinjuku was fields. Okido, it was called.”

He was right. The stone lantern marks the location of the Yotsuya Okido, one of the three “big wooden doors” that served as customs barriers on the three main thoroughfares west out of the capital, in this case the Koshu Kaido out to Nagano Prefecture. How many countless times have I passed it without pausing to contemplate its significance, I wonder.

A man passed by us on his way home from the sento.

“And over there,” the Frenchman went on, gesturing in the opposite direction, “in Tomihisa-cho, there’s a memorial to [Greek-Irish author] Lafcadio Hearn. Quite elaborate it is. He used to live there when he was in Tokyo. Ask at the police box, they’ll tell you how to find it.”

Who is commemorated and who is not: no plaque, no plinth with somber statue, no pedestal with bronze bust honors Mishima’s birthplace. He has never been forgiven for his criticism of the emperor, for the many other feathers he ruffled, for that last torrid day of his life.

In many ways, that day—November 25, 1970—was a homecoming (not that Mishima ever lived for any length far from the neighborhood of his birth). Nagasumi-cho is just 500 meters or so from the western edge of what was then the Eastern Army headquarters, where, after Mishima and four members of his Shield Society private army kidnap the army commander and Mishima harangues a throng of bemused and listless soldiers, hungry for lunch, in a speech that begins by acknowledging its own futility and is drowned out by boos and jeers and heckles and the police and media helicopters circling like vultures overhead, Mishima retreats to the commander’s office, smokes a final cigarette, strips to his loincloth, gives his wristwatch to a henchman, plunges a dirk into his belly, and is decapitated, to be followed headlong into death in like fashion by his acolyte Masakatsu Morita.

Indeed, from one spot—just one spot—in Nagasumi-cho, as the vista, usually so constricted, opens up, you can see the green-swaddled roofs and the communications tower of the Ministry of Defense, which moved to the site once occupied by the Eastern Army 12 years to the day before this photo was taken, in a relocation that took seven years and cost $3bn or so, the site having also once been the headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army and the venue of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, where the Tokyo War Crimes Trials were held.

That day was a homecoming in less literal ways, too. Enthralled, I watch anew the 1985 BBC TV documentary, The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima, as bewitched by the imperfect perfection of his Grand Guignol exit—a monstrous coelacanth of an act hauled up from the depths of the extreme—as I was when I first saw the program, a naïve teen, when it first aired. There’s so much to savor but inevitably Mishima is the star: his urbanity, the suaveness with which he speaks in archive footage in excellent English about the “huge spiritual vacuum” and “unbearable boredom” engulfing post-war Japan, the relish he reserves for the word “death”, the voiceless dental fricative of the terminal “th” pronounced perfectly, his eyebrows, two hairy black caterpillars writhing with malevolent intent, and his sign-off declaration, “Hara-kiri sometimes makes you win.”

I grow fascinated by the khaki winter uniform of the private army, in which Mishima appears in the last shots taken of him alive, mere moments before his death, a uniform that some have ridiculed as Ruritanian or Graustarkian and others have derided as the livery of a hotel doorman, but which seems to me the epitome of a sparsely modern sensibility and was designed by a man, Tsukumo Igarashi, with a truly otherworldly name (九十九五十嵐, “ninety-nine fifty-storms”) who had worked with Pierre Cardin in Paris and sewn trousers for General de Gaulle and who is still alive, designed thanks to the offices of one of the patriarchs of the latterly deeply scandal-tainted Seibu railway-to-department store-to-real estate empire, Seiji Tsutsumi, who is also still alive. And the uniform itself, isn’t its progenitor to be found in the “thigh-pullers” of the night-soil man? And those rows of buttons that ascend in flying goose formation up the flanks of Mishima’s abdomen, aren’t they the descendents of the buttons on the subway ticket-punchers’ tunics? And that hachimaki headband, with its Shinto-nationalist inscription (七生報国—“Even if reborn seven times, I will serve my country”), isn’t it the just the night-soil man’s dirty hand-towel, rarefied, cleansed and politicized?

The double disembowelment and beheading produces barrels of blood, as is only to be expected, great ghastly torrents of blood that spatter everyone and everything; it also releases, as the dirk goes in, the stench of feces, even though Mishima had evacuated his bowels that morning, and it’s plausible that if he had had any space left in his sensory system free of paralyzing pain, the very last odor he would have tasted would have been his own ordure—and there we are, transported back to the slope of 1929, with the night-soil man, his beautiful blood-red cheeks and his buckets of excrement. So in death, Mishima achieves his earliest yearning: writing of the night-soil man, he says, “Looking up at that dirty youth, I was choked by desire, thinking ‘I want to change into him,’ thinking, ‘I want to be him.’”

In the BBC documentary, Nobuko Lady Albery (now there’s a name to conjure with) says in her exquisitely cut-glass but expressive English of the suicide of Mishima something worth citing in full:

It was a political embarrassment, as well, because just when Japan was on the point of becoming a member of the advanced industrialized nations, whom we have copied so doggedly all those years, and then here comes this writer, and killing himself as if the clock were put back two centuries. Certain people say, the way he died, the way he worshipped the sword, the Japanese Hagakure cause of ethics of the samurais and everything, he’s the most archaic, the most reactionary Japanese. Now, in whatever little compartment as an individual, as a clown—which he liked to be—as an actor, as an impostor, as a gangster, as an aristocrat, in every little thing he tried to be, he over-existed, and I think that quality, the Japanese simply not only scorn, but find intolerable, because we have all been brought up on this Confucian teaching, “When there is a stink, put a lid on it.”

When there is a stink, put a lid on it—this is what Mishima refused to do. When he appropriates—if that’s not too strong a word—the buckets of the night-soil man, he lifts their lids and carries them with him, through life to death.

Nagasumi-cho is trisected south-to-north by two roads just wide enough for cars to pass each other; one manages to make it out of the neighborhood, the other dissolves into an intricate nest of tiny lanes barely wide enough for a bicycle, then into a lattice of stairways and slopes. There are no gods here, save for a tiny curbside Shinto shrine to Oinari, flanked by red-bibbed stone foxes in cages, no shops here, save for a greengrocers with sagging sun-sapped awnings,

no reason for outsiders, save deliverers of parcels and post, to broach the bulwarks of the district. I wander the lanes of the flatlands first, where manhole covers seem to rear up off the asphalt like the shining breastplates of warriors.

It’s a fine day for washing, for airing, for drying, and the laundry is out—as it is all over the city—on ramshackle verandahs perched above sheds and on poles blocking rickety staircases.

Umbrellas hang off a staircase handrail like acrobats and futons lap out of windows above banks of air-conditioners, their parasitic tendrils seeming to suck the life out of the old grey concrete.

Almost nothing is left of the neighborhood as it would have appeared in 1970, when Mishima died, but here and there are vestigial traces of the first wave of post-war reconstruction, and down the merest capillary of an alleyway, accessible only on foot, I stumble across the purest expression of that reconstruction, a house, its front staved in as if punched in anger, that dates to around 1950—confirmed by an old man weeding nearby.

To the north and east, as the claustrophobia intensifies, the abandonment multiplies. Of a jumble of refuse outside a postage-stamp park, to which an enraged resident has affixed a sign that’s almost a haiku:

Fly-tippers
Go to hell
I’ll be waiting!
Enma Daio (the wrathful Hindu-Buddhist god of purgatory)

Of bicycles, naturally, but also of scooters, moldering away under and beside stairways, wherever surplus space—there’s precious little—can be found.

The doorways close in as the passageways narrow—and what doorways they are, rust-blotched and rust-rashed doorways, doorways in ocher with ancient light fixtures, crazy-paved doorways with piles of tires, doorways to secret strips of land down which one could go looking for a lost cat and end up in a parallel world, doorways with the light on at midday and a sticker refusing flyers for sex services, doorways to a landing on stilts with no manifest purpose, doorways that give on to yet other doorways, where someone always seems to watching.

And the stairways! What a profusion of stairways crowd in now, aerial stairways, stairways that clamber up the sides of the tenements, public and private stairways that feel forsaken by feet, stairways piled on stairways—impossible Escher stairways the denizens of this netherworld of stairs are condemned to ascend and descend for eternity.

“Is it so unusual?” asked the man in yellow and black, dismounting with bagfuls of laundry.
“No, not really. I just like the shape of the stairs.”
“Bloody stairs. Hard work when you’re my age.”

Quixotic though the quest for the slope of the night-soil man certainly was—there is no telling whether it has been effaced by war or prosperity, or even how close to Mishima’s home it lay—being freed from the burden of certainty allowed the liberty to choose whichever felt right. I have never had a literary hard-on for Mishima, but I could feel one coming on, dick as dowsing-rod, walking the backstreets of Nagasumi-cho. We can infer from the scene in Confessions that the slope was narrow, as the buckets are being carried, fore-and-aft, over one shoulder, whereas the yoke would usually be worn across the back of the neck with the arms wrapped around the beam—the night-soil man as eternal Christ-like penitent in the blood cult of Christianity. The night-soil man’s journey must have been short, too, because by the twenties there were surely night-soil carts, hand-drawn or horse-drawn, plying their abject trade across the metropolis.

In this—no doubt morbid—curiosity about the night-soil man, I’m joined by throngs of priests and priestesses of the religion of psychoanalysis, be they Freudians, post-Freudians, Lacanians, post-Lacanians, post-post-Freudian-Lacanians, or whatever irascible sect into which they have splintered, who furiously pen articles in their journals and festschrifts with titles like Phallic Narcissism, Anal Sadism, and Oral Discord: The Case of Yukio Mishima. (Oddly, they are steadfastly uninterested in the operators of hana-densha or the subway ticket punchers.) The coarser sorts of Freudians simply insult:

One may also discern a more specific psychological meaning [than that attributed by Mishima himself to the night-soil man]: the attraction to excrement common among homosexuals fixated in what Freud called the anal-sadistic phase.

Deadly Dialectics: Sex, Violence, and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishima, Roy Starrs, Associate Professor, University of Otago (1994)

The more sophisticated post-structuralists, influenced by feminism and queer theory, simply obfuscate:

The ability to spill (blood, shit, urine) is a sign of the body’s flaunting of the norms of containment, its relish in excess, but also of its moribundity. Accordingly, Kochan’s [i.e., Mishima’s] first physical attraction is to a ladler of excrement (funnyuo: manure/urine), an episode that comes close on the heels of his initial bout of autointoxication and reinforces his tendency to apotheosize health-as-reformulation/emission. … But the connection of excrement to the social role of the shit-ladler and the mapping of that role on a sociohierarchic grid—a role that Kochan valorizes and eroticizes—indicate the attraction is identificatory as well. One effect of Kochan’s pairing of recirculation/emission fantasies with the ladler of excrement manifests itself in a homoeroticized coprophilia, in which health and beauty are linked with the collection/dispersal of soil/feces.

Body/Talk: Mishima, Masturbation, and Self-Performativity, Donald H. Mengay, Associate Professor, Baruch College, CUNY (1995)

I used to be old enough to understand what this meant, but thankfully I’m so much younger now. And besides, just to take the first sentence alone, the ability to micturate and defecate is not a sign of either the “body’s relish in excess”, as bodies alone cannot relish anything, nor of its moribundity, but of healthy excretory processes, and blood is not to be idly conflated with feces or urine.

The post-Lacanians simply provoke giggles:

It is around the age of four that the boy must lose his penis to bear the phallus, the signifier of desire and of castration. This is how masculine identification takes place. The privilege of the phallus, says Lacan, is to give order to the real of the body and to its mental scheme, to integrate it, so that even if it remains parceled out, it functions as the elements of the body’s crest, or coat of arms.

Violence in Works of Art, or, Mishima, from the Pen to the Sword, Danielle Bergeron, Training Analyst, GIFRIC, Quebec (2002)

It amuses—though it should appall—that the good taxpayers of New Zealand, the United States, and Canada should be funding, directly or indirectly, this infantile psychobabble. In a September 11, 1964, Life magazine special ahead of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, Mishima has the following to say, in a short yet meandering and in places flippantly offhand essay, A Famous Japanese Judges the US Giant (adore that “giant”):

In America … the fear of self-confrontation appears to have impinged on the outlook of some intellectuals. I was amazed to learn how many intellectuals and artists frequent the psychoanalysts. Would it not be more proper for the psychoanalysts to consult the artists? In Japan, the laundries send a man every morning to the back door to pick up the family wash, but in America it is the customer who must make his way to the laundry with his bundle of soiled clothes, the accumulation of days if not weeks.

By poring over the entrails of Mishima’s life and works in search of validation, the psychoanalysts are, I suppose, answering his wish that they consult the artist, although they appear convinced they have the upper hand in the dialogue; personally, I would advise anyone with disequilibria of the mind, psychoanalysts—surely they have enough problems of their own—and indeed anyone of less than robust mental constitution to steer well clear of Mishima and artists of his ilk. As for the soiled laundry analogy—as if schizoaffective disorder, psychotic depression, or delusional parasitosis could be washed out like a dirty shirt—well, just see above…  

The next day, a little providence and a little diligence conspired to hand me a modern address—Yotsuya 4-chome 22 banchi—for Mishima’s birthplace. While still amorphous, this address covers less territory than its prewar counterpart, and there was only one corner.

So this was it, the modern incarnation of that “pretentious house on a corner, with a rather jumbled appearance and a dingy, charred feeling”; still a tad pretentious and jumbled, perhaps, though not dingy and charred. It is both the office premises of Aroma Watch Japan (that’s “watch” as in “wristwatch”), about which I can dig up nothing, and the home of either a Japanese with the forbiddingly rare family name Kiku (聞) or—heaven and Mishima forfend!—a Chinese.

But what of the slope? There was one leading away to the right from the corner house itself, narrow enough in places, but scarcely an incline and lacking in drama, and another, half-slope, half-steps, but too broad and too bright, somehow, for the night-soil man. The steps, though—what if the slope had been laid to steps since? Again, there were two candidates.

The first stairway I dismissed as too wide, too straight, but the second, ah the second—there was an ineffable magic about the way the stairs climbed, then twisted, then narrowed, then turned, one wall rusticated with mossy stone. This, then, was the slope of my night-soil man, my Mishima.

If much of what was Nagasumi-cho looks dowdy and superannuated, well it is. In 1979, critic Donald Ritchie could write in an essay, Tokyo, the impermanent capital, that “the city as a whole does not appear as though it were built to last”, that new buildings are so flamboyantly modern “one cannot but expect them to be shortly superseded”, and of how the grand shrine at Ise, the Mecca of Shintoism, is torn down and rebuilt every 20 years:

In its way the Japanese city follows this same pattern. The idea of continually pilling down and putting up is very strong. Tokyo for this reason always seems under construction and indeed, will never really be finished.

Tokyo strikes me as a vast swathe of veldt that has to be swept by fire—in its case, earthquakes and conflagrations historically, latterly carpet-bombing and prosperity—to have its ecosystem renewed. But in the last two decades of stagnation, and especially in the last five years, those fires have grown fewer, briefer, and more concentrated around stations overground and underground, and in places like Nagasumi-cho—of which there are thousands across the capital—the clock of renewal has slowed to a crawl. Tokyo, like its inhabitants, is aging, and because, beyond the arteries, its proportions are so resolutely human, and because it is primarily built of concrete, that most unforgiving of materials, whose aging cannot be disguised by Botox or surgery, the physical fabric of the city is aging as a favorite aunt or uncle ages, visibly, almost painfully, as the metabolism of the city slackens. As far back as 1932, Belgian poet Henri Michaux could exclaim, “Tokyo is a hundred times more modern than Paris!” The same comparison would not hold today.

This, though, is my Tokyo, if not the Tokyo of Mishima: unshaven, unshowered Tokyo, Tokyo with its make-up off last thing at night, a place of battered plastic bottles strapped with green duct tape and nylon string around a lamppost to ward off cats and—maybe—demons, of rolls of toilet paper and cleaning fluids seen through frosted mosaic windows, of traces of tires worn in the dusty beige and ecru tile floor of an empty garage, of a white business shirt slumped on a pillar like a crumpled ghost, of bicycles parked where no bicycles should be, of brooms and plant pots and bright blue upturned buckets and bins, of resident association noticeboards, green felt encased in bronzed steel, with no notices of note, of electricity meters slapped on chipboard and strung up with wire knots, of silvery shrouds for motorcycles and motorboats, of lanes and balconies and doorways and narrow strips of sunlight that fall on passageways between buildings down which noone ever strays—a disciplined Tokyo gothic if you like, where a fluorescent strip-light always flickers down some dank corridor, even on the sunniest day, where clouds sneak up and rain sets in for hours and hours, where a mother sits on a bench in a park reading a paperback, alone, while her toddler son plays in the dirt, alone, where ivy breeds and strangles desire, and where, on a stairway forever in shade, a camellia weeps its petals for the youth of an old woman who hangs her undergarments with bath-fresh flesh-pink pegs on a washing line in a gloomy nook, hard by the spot where—just possibly—eighty years before, a boy had his first, aureate, erotic encounter, one that was to define the contours of his life and death, a Tokyo where some young Mishima still lies in bed and dreams of blood and glory, a Tokyo where something—or someone—can always be revealed if one peers intently enough past the spray-on drywall coating and through the letterbox, the letterbox of everybody’s river.

70 responses to “Tokyo through the letterbox

  1. Evocative and insightful as always.

  2. It seems that as postings to your blog become less frequent, the quality goes up and up. It’s been a long wait since the last posting, but a wait well worthwhile. And as is so often the case, the subject is totally unexpected but, if you will forgive the adjective, truly beautiful. [PS: “Beautiful” may not be quite the bon mot when blood, feces, and urine are among the subject matters.]

    Incidentally, you describe Lafcadio Hearn as “Greek-Irish”. Readers not familiar with Hearn may not realize that that’s his ancestry, but he was thoroughly American. I understand the Japanese worship the man’s memory; certainly when I swept a used book store of his writings, the majority of the books were Japanese reprints. Maybe one day you’ll lift the veil and give us a good look behind Hearn’s reputation?

    • Thank you for the kind words. Dishearteningly, this post hasn’t garnered much of a reaction–too much of a gorefest, perhaps. I’m not sure that distance between posts is a guide to very much, as “Tokyo through the letterbox” only took five full days, start to finish, which is about average. The gap since the last post has been largely the result of work on a more ambitious project (of which Mishima is just a little tangent), where I may have bitten off more than I can chew, and the need to study for and sit an exam.
      I guess I described Lafcadio Hearn as “Greek-Irish” because it’s so much more intriguing, at least for the 19th century. He was so international in background and life but succumbed to a role as an apologist for Japanese nationalism (which is why the Japanese still like him so much). Here’s Isiah Berlin on German protonationalist von Herder–but he might as well be talking about Hearn:
      [Herder] is the originator all those antiquarians who want natives to remain as native
      as possible, who like arts and crafts, who detest standardisation—everyone who likes
      the quaint, people who wish to preserve the most exquisite forms of old provincialism
      without the impingement on it of some hideous metropolitan uniformity. Herder
      is the father, the ancestor, of all those travellers, all those amateurs, who go round
      the world ferreting out all kinds of forgotten forms of life, delighting in everything
      that is peculiar, everything that is odd, everything that is native, everything that is
      untouched. In that sense he did feed the streams of human sentimentality to a very
      high degree.

      (I got this from a shameful source, I must confess…)

  3. Genevieve Morgan

    Brilliant. Now I need to read it again.

  4. Always worth reading to the end

  5. Well worth the wait. I especially liked the Escher motif. Anything you could share about the more ambitious project?

    • Glad you liked it. Well the more ambitious project is about rivers, sedimentation, environmental interference and its consequences, forestry and farming, burakumin communities, the novelist Shimazaki Toson, tanneries, German explorer Philipp Franz von Siebold, pigeons, indentured Korean laborers in WWII, obituaries, and the boundaries between civilization and barbarism (among other things). No wonder I’ll never finish it…

      • I am glad I asked! I have always been fascinated with the burakumin/eta/hinin caste. A few years back I had the good fortune of representing a foreign leather goods manufacturer entering the Japanese market. Unsurprisingly, the J gov denied them tariff quota, but we were able to broker a deal among a japanese trading company and a group of burakmin, which enabled our client to import its wares. (The burakumin had excess tariff quota.) That is the closest I have ever gotten to touching an untouchable. As far as I know. I hope, at least, parts of this project grace the pages of Spike Japan.

      • Interesting tale, thank you for that. I won’t go too much into my burakumin adventures–it’d spoil the surprise–save to say that so far they are mostly literary, historical, and cartographical. One day I’ll get this done…

      • Just a bit of “lite” reading, then? : )

      • Oh, don’t go there, please–the Amazon shopping cart is groaning with over $1,000 worth, and I just spent $100+ on a book on Philipp Franz von Siebold that’s no more use than toilet paper.

  6. Great read, great pics, as always, although not your usual fare. I’ll need to brush up on Mishima, though. Last paragraph a thing of beauty.

    • I wouldn’t worry too much about Mishima–there’s a lot else out there that needs reading. Glad you liked the last paragraph, it’s there as a sort of reward for having come so far on such a gruelling trudge…

  7. Splendid! I will need to read this a few times… some powerful images both in words and pictures! Love the back-alley decay, steps and stairs.

    I now have the urge to re-read ‘The Golden Pavilion’ which was lent to me by my first flute teacher, half a lifetime ago, if only to find out why this book was considered course reading for a student of Japanese music…

  8. A peripatetic Frenchman with an uncanny knowledge of Tokyo’s remotest districts? Did you accidentally bump into Lionel Dersot? Your post even feels like one of his.

    • Ha! No, it wasn’t Lionel Dersot–I didn’t know who he was until you mentioned him, but now I Google him, my Frenchman was a little older, greyer, balder, and somehow sent by the deities of coincidence. But you’re right, we do have something in common, especially in his April post, Fermer tôt (Early closing, I guess), here:
      http://tokyo.blog.lemonde.fr/2012/04/02/fermer-tot/
      Thanks for the introduction!

  9. Pachiguy, I urge you again to give up your day job. This was exquisite, as all of your contributions have been. The final sentence juxtaposed with the letterbox and the “Minakawa” nameplate: just brilliant. But it was just icing on a very satisfying cake. That you can write so well without resorting to any condescension or, conversely, any nativism (as so many Japanophiles tend to do) is so refreshing.
    For the benefit of anyone who cares, I would suggest that the rusting letterboxes that have three out of four letter slots sealed up with duct-tape is typical of a building that has been earmarked for destruction as soon as the last occupant leaves. The renter has certain rights, and the owner of the building/land cannot evict the renter until his contract is up (and perhaps even beyond that… I would have to double check). In any event, the mailboxes of units that are now empty get sealed with duct-tape. And the building will get no maintenance as the owner will not spend money repairing a on a building that he intends to tear down (or leave for the new developers to tear down). This act of neglect also has the effect of making the building even more unpleasant to live in, in the hope that the last renter will hurry up and vacate.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. Had a lot of doubts about the last line, because it’s such a terrible pun, but in the end decided something felt right about “everybody’s river”.
      As for the Kawakamiso, those letterboxes might just be a bit of a MacGuffin. If you look very closely at the photo above it, you can see the first two katakana characters (テナ) of a “tenants wanted” sign, with the name and phone number of a real estate agent underneath (勧幸不動産 on 03-3351-6977, should you be interested…) I can think of multiple explanations here–the owner could well be rich enough, old enough, and ignorant enough not to reduce his price to the prevailing market rate, for instance–but imminent demolition is not, I would say, a foregone conclusion. But you have me curious now–might have to give the agent a call tomorrow…
      “And the building will get no maintenance as the owner will not spend money repairing a building that he intends to tear down (or leave for the new developers to tear down).”
      Hey, my landlord won’t spend any money repairing my building, and it was only built in 1998… But you’re right in the grand scheme of things, the Kawakamiso can’t be that long for this world. Incidentally, in the course of researching this I tracked down a few Japanese bloggers with tales of the Kawakamiso–they don’t make for very pretty reading. Here’s one:
      “I couldn’t afford the Y180,000 a month office in the picture on the left, so I moved into the wood-framed no-bath Y60,000 a month apartment in the picture on the right. The Kawakamiso, still there in that “hidden spot” of Yotsuya 4-chome. I couldn’t bathe, so I washed myself in the kitchen. I ate from the free-tasting corners of the department stores.”
      左の家賃18万円のオフィス事務所が維持できず、右の家賃6万円の木造風呂無しアパートへ。四谷4丁目の「秘境」に今もある川上荘。風呂にも行けず、台所で身体を洗う。食い物は百貨店の試食コーナーへ。

  10. Fantastic post, wonderful reading as always. Far more interesting than the extracts of academic wankfest you kindly provided!

    And yes, Tokyo is getting old. The DY did a story for Children`s Day – “The proportion of children was the highest in Okinawa prefecture, at 17.7% … Tokyo and Akita shared the lowest ranking, with a proportion of 11.3%” What will Tokyo look like ten years down the track, I wonder? It`s amazing that prime real estate (location wise) in central Tokyo is left so dowdy and not so far from derelict…

    • Glad you enjoyed it. Yes, Tokyo and Akita, such different places, are united by their relative childlessness. The difference is that Tokyo sucks up the 18+ year old children of the rest of Japan and Akita, well, Akita doesn’t–which is why Akita’s population peaked in 1980 and has fallen about 15% since and Tokyo continues to grow. But Tokyo, with its world-class low birth rate (about 0.8 in Shibuya-ku), is the metropolis that devours the children of the rest of the country, a situation paralleled across the rest of East Asia (offhand, I think the Shanghai total fertility rate these days is about 0.6x).
      “What will Tokyo look like ten years down the track, I wonder?”
      Well, the latest population stats suggest that absolute population decline is beginning to nip even at the heels of Tokyo–Fussa, out in the west, falling sharply now off a 1995 peak, and declines setting in even in places like Kita-ku, demographically the oldest of the 23 wards. Perhaps I should venture out to places like these to answer your question…

  11. what a lovely, transporting early sunday morning read, will be back for more !

  12. Are there any images of this neighbourhood from when it was rural fields and Daimyo residences? Painted, woodblock, or photographic, would just love to have a visual anchor for its history.

    • whatever goo.ne.jp is, they have an interesting map app feature (古地図) that lets you view postwar Kanto-area aerial imagery from 1947 and 1963

      http://link.maps.goo.ne.jp/map.php?MAP=E139.43.10.529N35.41.12.633&ZM=10

      for the Yotsuya 4-chome area. In the 古地図 menu you can also select 明治 to get the pre-war mapping of the area.

      • Thank you for that, Troy! Yes, the Japanese blogger I came across who made the same pilgrimage as me in search of The Slope and from whom I shamelessly pilfered a potted history of the area:
        http://ameblo.jp/brmedit/entry-10774274085.html
        mentions the goo maps:
        但し、gooで古地図を見ると、文久3年、西暦1863年、この付近は徳川御三家のひとつ田安徳川家の下屋敷があったところのようで、それらしい道は書かれていない。
        明治以後に出来た坂道なのかもしれない。
        同じくgooの明治時代の地図ではそれらしい道があるが確信はない。
        I should perhaps have investigated this lead further, but in a way I was quite content to leave this as a journey of the imagination. Clearly you have quite a cartographical passion…

      • Clearly you have quite a cartographical passion…

        I am endlessly fascinated by Tokyo real estate development. So much capital investment (and valuation!) in so little spatial area . . .

        And who needs SimCity when you have bing map’s aerial mapping service . . .

        10-15 years ago I used to love to go out on weekend nights like now and just blow through Shinjuku-ku on my bicycle. Pretty peaceful late at night, yet seemingly in the middle of the universe.

        Gotta do that again.

      • Those bing maps are quite a feat, but they still hide the on-the-ground details, wouldn’t you say, unlike Google Maps.
        10-15 years ago I used to love to go out on weekend nights like now and just blow through Shinjuku-ku on my bicycle. Pretty peaceful late at night, yet seemingly in the middle of the universe.
        Gotta do that again.

        I can well understand that. If you’re ever in town, a ride together? The overhead metropolitan expressways offer a similar thrill.

  13. Impoverished they may be, but it is striking that, unlike some other people infinitely better off, they do not thoughtlessly besmirch their environment with their personal trash.

  14. absolutely brilliant read. I need another dose.

  15. Pachiguy you have excelled yourself. Well worth the wait for this wonderful piece. I can even forgive ‘tire’ and ‘ocher’ in exchange for your very concise but delightfully vicious demolition of post-modern psychoanalytic theory. It took Sokal a whole paper to do what you did in a few lines.

    • Glad you liked it. Because I spend my days in a US environment, my orthography and vocabulary have evolved into a mid-Atlantic hybrid, the template for which is perhaps a UK rawk singer of the 70s trying to break the US market–Atlantic Crossing-era Rod Stewart? Note though that I do still say “letterbox”… I’m not particularly concerned, although one consequence is that I can no longer spell maneuver/manoevre in either dialect. Sometimes I feel a bit sorry for the mind-slaves of the psychoanalysts, to be honest–to have been left so far behind by modern neuroscience and so in thrall, essentially, to a doctor with a very bizarre set of patients and a very wild imagination in turn-of-the-19th century Vienna–but then I read again the nonsense on which I was (almost) force-fed at university, and the venom of the spleen starts rising like sap in spring.

      • “Because I spend my days in a US environment, . . .”

        I’m sorry. What did you do to deserve this?

      • Oh, it’s alright, you know. My US-jin are decent people.

  16. Wow! I made myself two cups of coffee before settling down to read, I had a feeling I’d need two and I was right. What a journey! I felt as though I was actually strolling around there with you. And now I feel pooped. (Hee hee … pooped … see what I did there?). I am going to enjoy watching the documentary later, too. Thank you.

    • Miko, I think you’ll like the documentary, somehow. And how was HtB?!?

      • HTB was … so exhausting that I can’t write about it right now. Let’s just say that I needed a vacation to recover from my vacation.

        Once when I was young I found a picture of Mishima in a magazine. At that time I didn’t know anything about his his life, or his politics, or his intriguing beginnings and grisly end: he was a complete stranger to me. I just thought he was, aesthetically, one of the most beautiful men I had ever laid eyes on (admittedly not a practiced eye in those days). Later on I read a few of his novels, but couldn’t make head or tail of them. And the Japanese friends I had were extremely reluctant to talk about him at all, so I didn’t know whether I was supposed to admire, despise, or ignore him. After reading your account, I know for sure that he shouldn’t be ignored.

        If the docko is anything to go by, his spoken English was impeccable. Where did he, and others of his generation, pick up such beautiful English?

      • If the docko is anything to go by, his spoken English was impeccable. Where did he, and others of his generation, pick up such beautiful English?
        Well, the occupation forces, for starters–bed can be the best classroom… Although I think Mishima was exceptional in this regard, in many ways very much
        the gifted autodidact. He also had this preternatural will-to-fame that wasn’t satisfied with fame on the four home islands, but had to be worldwide, and as a
        result had this very early global consciousness that sits so uneasily with the later ultranationalism. One of the reasons that he still resonates as a person,
        or a proto-celebrity, more than as an author, is the complexity of the life and the richness of interpretative stances that result. There are so many endless
        takes on the suicide, for instance–lovers’ shinju double suicide, failed attempt at a rightist political uprising, last gasp of a narcissist who didn’t
        want to grow old, bid for immortality by a writer who feared or realized his best work was done, ultimate act of self-dramatising theater, I could go on…

      • No, please do go on, I never get tired of hearing your voice. (Actually I was just trying to pick up some tips for my mature students, but I’m not sure if advising them to disembowel themselves in public is quite the right thing, wink!) I must say though, I’ve dealt with quite a few male students who were of the same generation as Mishima (obviously most of them are no longer around by now, but ah the war stories they told me!) and indeed many of them spoke excellent English. I just find that so puzzling when I contrast it with the incoherent youths of today, especially when you consider that they were raised in an climate that discouraged English language study. I wish I’d picked their brains a bit more while they were still around.

  17. I am curious how you would translate 仮面の告白into English. I don’t care that Mishima and Weatherby discussed the translation before it appeared. The translation leaves a lot to be desired as you imply – the same frustration I feel when I watch a Japanese movie with English subtitles. (I know it happens in every translation no matter what the language, so not unique to Japanese to English.) On the other hand, I suggest you are making too much of the phrase 血色の良い. It’s used routinely, as I am sure you are aware, to simply mean “looking healthy”, “having a glowing complexion”. My 86-year old mother would utter the very same phrase if I am well rested when I visit. Yes, there are other ways of saying the same thing so his choice of the word may be important, but I can’t feel the importance you ascribe to the phrase when I read the paragraph. It’s been years since I read the book so perhaps I ought to read it again. There is no profound hidden meaning in “blood orange” despite the use of the word “blood” – at least that is what I think. Similarly, I suggest that 血色の良い means not much more than looking healthy (and not pale) in this case. As you must know, Japanese on the whole are much less squeamish about blood, urine and feces than your average 外人.

    Apart from that I am glad you dispensed with all that deconstruction stuff.

    • I am not able to comment on the quality of the translation but I am surprised to hear you say. ‘As you must know, Japanese on the whole are much less squeamish about blood, urine and feces than your average 外人.’

      I wanted to add that this statement does not match with my experience living in Japan these last 18 years. Maybe ones perception of this depends which part of ‘outsiderland’ you are coming from. People from the industrial North West of England are not very squeamish about bodily functions/fluids.

      Not taking a contrary stance here Emi San, just saying that my experience differs from yours.

      • Well, I am from Nagoya, and not from upper crust. Maybe it’s just my family. What I consider normal or routine is crude or shocking to my American colleagues. Yes, the folks from the North Country Stinks Brigade are also shocking to many of my American colleagues. The Japanese I grew up with were down to earth and did not insist on using euphemisms. My grandmothers’ house survived the carpet bombing (95% of Nagoya was wiped out) and once a month the city sanitation department came to empty out the “night soil” under the old fashioned toilet. Far cry from these new toilets in public places where I can push a button to play the sound of flushing toilet while I pee. I guess Japan has become a lot more “polite” and out of touch with nature and natural functions in general.

      • Well, this is exactly the point, isn’t it? Modern urban Japan is at least two generations removed from the night-soil man and modern rural Japan largely at least a generation removed, which is probably only give or take a generation, respectively, “behind” the West. Now we in Japan all live in a world of Toto Washlets–98% of toilets sold in Japan are Western-style, many much more sanitary in their sanitary ceramics than those in the West. And as for blood–well, noone in contemporary Japan or the West, aside from the specialists to whom we consign these tasks–those who perform emergency triage in a mass casualty incident, butcher chickens and pigs and cows, perform open-heart surgery–noone ever sees copious amounts of blood. We’re for the most part completely estranged from blood, animal or human. And this is a by-product, not of East or West, but of modern advanced industrial societies, wouldn’t you say?

    • I am curious how you would translate 仮面の告白into English.
      Well, I don’t really have a problem with “Confessions of a Mask”–do you?
      I don’t care that Mishima and Weatherby discussed the translation before it appeared.
      Just maybe Mishima told Weatherby some things we don’t know to clear up the ambiguity of the Japanese. I asked my (Japanese) other half how many stories does the Mishima residence have, and he said that he couldn’t say for sure…
      On the other hand, I suggest you are making too much of the phrase 血色の良い
      I was conscious that this is indeed a bit of a stretch, but was just idly looking for the point where blood (of any sort) first met feces. And this is nothing compared to what academic literary critics do… You might be suspicious, but sometimes outsiders to a language can unearth things that insiders, because of familiarity, cannot. I have serious form in this area, though: one of my undergraduate dissertations was titled (something like) “Filthy lucre: Money and excrement in Restoration Drama”. So much fun to write…
      There is no profound hidden meaning in “blood orange” despite the use of the word “blood” – at least that is what I think.
      There perhaps isn’t if you write in a postcard home that “We were in Seville and had some lovely blood oranges”, but here we are in a fairly exalted regime of literature and to a degree, as readers, can make of it what we will. That’s what’s fun about art!
      As you must know, Japanese on the whole are much less squeamish about blood, urine and feces than your average 外人.
      Actually, I mustn’t know that at all. I think that is a terrible, terrible, Occidentalist fallacy and completely essentialist, in that it proposes an intrinsic characteristic of a race–and races don’t exist anyway–beyond temporal change. This is exactly the sort of nationalist ideology masquerading as “thought” that has been woven so deeply into post-war Nihonjinron and drives me to despair about modern Japan. The modern urban “office ladies” with whom I work would turn deathly pale at the sight of blood and it’s almost impossible to imagine them–though sometimes I do (so kill me)–having anything as complicated as diarrhoea. Goodness me, they even find sexual intercourse icky, by all accounts! Next you’ll be telling me that only Japan has four seasons!

      • Andrew in Ezo

        ”The modern urban “office ladies” with whom I work would turn deathly pale at the sight of blood…”
        Well, then they must find their own menstruation to be a particularly traumatic experience. But seriously, women by virtue of their anatomy are used to seeing blood much more than men.

    • Absolutely, Emi. I remember in the early days being absolutely astounded by the unrestrained use of the word “bottom” (o-shiri) in everyday conversation, because you just don’t do that where I come from. I am always having to advise my students to go easy on the bathroom talk, and I’ve read of at least one J-to-E translator who ruthlessly cuts all such talk out of her novels. Japanese women amongst themselves freely discuss gynaecological issues in a manner that would be quite taboo in most English-speaking societies (not that the average male commentator on this board would be aware of that). However, Westerners tend to be more open about sexual matters than the Japanese. I sometimes wonder how the translators deal with that.

      • Pachiguy and Miko:
        I don’t really know how Japan has changed since I left there before the “Bubble” perhaps before either of you were even born. I’ve stayed in Tokyo for 5 months in 2001 but otherwise have been a ‘tourist” there. My connection these days is Japanese TV programs on satellite that I catch once a week. When I was growing up, white-collar workers, when they came home, lounged round in ふんどし in summer and there wasn’t much that was hidden.. We mentioned penis (オチンコ) in everyday conversation. Sexual matters may not be discussed openly, but pick up any magazine for married women and I suggest you will find detailed how-to about best positions for getting pregnant or how to make sex more exciting. Some manga for adult women have a lot explicit sex in it and you can buy it at any bookstore frequented by everyone including small kids. They are not hidden or wrapped in plastic. So the “office ladies” Pachiguy works with may have surprising private lives.

      • I don’t really know how Japan has changed since I left there before the “Bubble” perhaps before either of you were even born.
        I was born in 1967, not sure if Miko san will own up…
        When I was growing up, white-collar workers, when they came home, lounged round in ふんどし in summer and there wasn’t much that was hidden..
        Now that is interesting–was that the late70s/early 80s or so? So hard for an outsider to say how much of that goes on in 2012 outside the homes of 大工さん, etc. It’s also hard to escape the sense that nakedness or near-nakedness in private and public spaces has been anathematized–and beaten back to the restricted realm of the festival–over the last century, from the long decline of mixed bathing on. I was reminded of this only this evening, with a little vignette on TV about the abalone divers off the Pacific coast of Chiba–50 years ago, they would have been half-naked women, now they are a mix of women and men in wetsuits.
        Sexual matters may not be discussed openly, but pick up any magazine for married women and I suggest you will find detailed how-to about best positions for getting pregnant or how to make sex more exciting.
        True, but also true of Cosmopolitan
        So the “office ladies” Pachiguy works with may have surprising private lives.
        I’m sure some of them do!

      • I wonder what is the source of your information about what is ‘taboo in most English speaking societies’?
        I think the only thing ‘most English speaking societies’ have in common is that they are mostly English speaking.
        Is this not more of the same Japanese do this, Westerners do that, talk which drives me to despair (and to drink).
        People are all different, we exhibit wondrous variety in our personalities.
        Long live the differences!
        Confucius and Tokugawa have so much to answer for…

      • Absolutely, Emi. I remember in the early days being absolutely astounded by the unrestrained use of the word “bottom” (o-shiri) in everyday conversation, because you just don’t do that where I come from.
        Miko san, you must have be raised somewhere between a convent and Cheltenham Ladies’ College!
        Japanese women amongst themselves freely discuss gynaecological issues in a manner that would be quite taboo in most English-speaking societies (not that the average male commentator on this board would be aware of that).
        Do tell more! I don’t think, though, that the most un-average male commentator would be aware of that, as they’re conversations in a female sphere closed off to the male gaze (not that there is anything wrong with that at all.) One day, us men will share what the boys talk about in the Japanese mens’ room… As for the blanket generalizations, well I would come down quite hard on you for “Westerners tend to be more open about sexual matters than the Japanese”. I understand the human urge to see patterns where perhaps none exist, but in the absence of any real evidence except deceitful because partial personal experience, this is just the mirror image of “Japanese on the whole are much less squeamish about blood, urine and feces than your average 外人.”

    • Anecdotes are all I have, but I’ve plenty of ’em.

      For a while I lived in a semi-rural area where many of the homes were not connected to the sewage system (thankfully mine was not one of them) and I remember special trucks with long hoses showing up every so often to collect the waste, courtesy of the city (and complete with uniformed workers and all). This was as recently as 1999. It wasn’t easy explaining to my foreign houseguests what the trucks were all about.

      The use of オチンコ in everyday conversation shouldn’t really faze me, after all many English speakers do similar in English (and not really in a sexual sense anyhow: oftentimes they are using the words of body parts – both male and female – to insult other people or to vent their frustrations, which must seem puzzling to the Japanese).

      Life in Japan has been a series of shocks, in discovering the peculiarly earthy attitudes that they carry towards perfectly natural bodily functions and excretions. Some are more shocking than others. The カンチョー custom for example, although it seems to be dying out. Is there truly any equivalent to that in any Western country? At least, not one that wouldn’t be regarded as a violent assault?

      Last year a lovely Japanese acquaintance, who had been politely trying, and failing, to establish my exact age, resorted to bluntly asking me “do you still bleed?” Do you think her western counterpart would ever dream of asking something like that?

      And I have never, ever had an in-depth conversation about sexual matters with a Japanese friend. Never! Not even with my best-est long-time Japanese friends. I wouldn’t be upset if any of them raised the topic, I would just be puzzled. No wonder they have to resort to magazines for information. (Although I really doubt that those magazines reveal anything that you couldn’t read about in, say, Cosmo.) Maybe it’s just the company I keep.

      • No wonder they have to resort to magazines for information. (Although I really doubt that those magazines reveal anything that you couldn’t read about in, say, Cosmo.)
        Snap!

      • Well, you’ve figured out my age!

  18. Really incredible piece.

  19. Thanks for another impressive piece, as always evocative of emotion and provocative of thought, and well worth waiting for. Your photos indicate that we have similar tastes in what we find interesting; I envy your ability to record so well for others what I can only notice and remember for myself.

  20. Of all that you have written over the last couple of years, this is the only paragraph that is a stretch.

    “I grow fascinated by the khaki winter uniform of the private army, in which Mishima appears in the last shots taken of him alive, . . . ”

    Mishima was a loon at the end of his life and the uniform probably had more in common with Chaplin’s “The Dictator” than as an dignified homage to the “night soil” man and/or any subway ticket puncher of yore

    Then again, what the hell do I know? I never got beyond “Temple of the Golden Pavilion.”

    • Mishima was a loon at the end of his life and the uniform probably had more in common with Chaplin’s “The Dictator” than as an dignified homage to the “night soil” man and/or any subway ticket puncher of yore.
      “Loon” is a little cruel, I think. The worst was that he took Morita, just 25, with him, and–much less seriously–forced the commander of the Eastern Army, tied to a chair, to watch. The politics, I feel, was mostly theater, though many would disagree. Allow me my little uniform fetish and also to draw parallels between the earliest avowed memories and the death–there was a fair degree of consistency throughout.

      • Love that uniform, love the perfect cut and the gleaming buttons, but I can’t help thinking “where have I seen it before?” I’ve got the feeling I first saw it on an ’80s video, something new-wavey. It’ll come to me in time.

      • Adam and the Ants?

        A little more louche, perhaps, a bit more Ruritanian, but the spirit is there…

      • Close my friend but no cigar, it was something a lot more buttoned up than that. Do you remember Steve Strange?

        God, it’s driving me crazy.

  21. Brilliant – one day, hopefully far in the future, this will be part of a book I am sure. I had no idea I lived so close to YM’s home for the better part of two years – 大京町 being the address. I must have passed in front of what used to be his home so many times on my way to 花園小学校 for a football game.

  22. Seaweed_Shark

    Another beautiful essay, Pachiguy — thanks. Reading this took me back (again) to my own sojourn in Tokyo in the early 1990s, when the bubble had burst but no one noticed, and foreigners were still giddily recounting to each other how the lands of the Imperial Palace were worth more than Canada. I would take long walks through the central district on my days off, meditating on the sights and sounds of that great city which, away from the main arteries, would sometimes give one the feeling of being about to break out into open field and farm just around the next corner — though my rational mind knew I was actually miles from any such thing. I must have stood within blocks of Mishima’s house site at least once, as I recall coming upon the Lafcadio Hearn memorial, while searching for a mini-Mt. Fuji said to have been built at some shrine. The house was long gone, the space occupied by a chain-linked basketball court, and the marker itself a metal or hard-plastic sign enhanced with gloomy Japanese and English parallel text to the effect that Hearn had been unwell much of his life, and that his last words were something ineffable like, “I’m so tired…” If I’m not mistaken it was just down the street from a looming capsule hotel. Now I’m at the other end of Asia breathing dust storms, and it seems a lifetime ago.

    I read some of the Western chorographies of Japan that came out at that time, not the horrible business books but the ones that attempted the more quixotic task of reflecting the what-it’s-like-ness of the place. Alex Kerr’s ‘Lost Japan’, and a book about Tokyo called ‘City on the Edge of Forever’ (or on the edge of something, Amazon fails me…) come to mind, but your essays are as well-turned and authentic as anything I’ve seen. By all means do please keep at work on the bigger project. All the best —

    • You got the best of it (“Tokyo in the early 1990s, when the bubble had burst but no one noticed”) and I’m jealous, jealous, jealous. The smart ones got out early with happy, hazy memories and wads of cash. Or so I like to believe.

      • It was an interesting and giddy time. the Bubble. I first lived in Japan from 1987 to 1991, then from 1995 to 1998. While the this second stint was smack in the first lost decade, it didn’t seem dramatically different. Then again, I was working in greater Tokyo. Highrise construction seemed unabated and consumption still high.

  23. The surname “聞” (To hear) is certainly Chinese.

    Incidentally, there are a few people calling themselves Japanese while using blatantly Chinese surnames; for example, Cho(張) Fujio, who was an exec of Toyota. He claimed his surname, which the Chinese read as “Chang” or “Zhang”, was used by an advisor of a certain daimyo a few centuries ago. Apparently more Japanese are getting used to this kind of thinly veiled disguise, and just accept such people as Japanese.

    • Ah, Tambora, Tambora, yet again another superb intervention! You exhibit to the nth degree one of the most meretricious and lamentable characteristics of the human race today, the extension of pseudo-religious certainty into realms far, far beyond your expertise or even, sadly, your appetite for investigation.
      The surname “聞” (To hear) is certainly Chinese.
      Brilliant. Any evidence for that? No, I thought not. Strangely enough, before I wrote “the home of either a Japanese with the forbiddingly rare family name Kiku (聞) or—heaven and Mishima forfend!—a Chinese”, I had actually done some research–unlike you–and discovered that, according to the pretty solid ENAMDICT of Japanese names:
      http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/cgi-bin/wwwjdic.cgi?1E
      聞 does exist as a Japanese family name. I then consulted this site:
      http://www.myj7000.jp-biz.net/
      which has 聞 ranked 55,527th in the Japanese family name ranking and labeled “extremely rare”. The explanation of the origins of the name:
      豊前国企救郡発祥、筑紫聞物部の後裔。現在、福岡県、東京都に存す。
      Well, you can have the pleasure of interpreting that (I have done already), but there’s no mention of Koreans or Chinese. Note though that bearers of the name are supposed to be in Fukuoka Prefecture and Tokyo.
      So–guess what–it’s not “certainly Chinese” at all; although as far as I can tell it is not a common Chinese family name according to the top 471 list (百家姓) there is a possibility that the resident is (residents are) Chinese.
      So you are pwned. As for your completely evidence-free speculations about Fujio Cho being a post-war Chinese interloper, I await your production of the Cho family tree proving second- or third-generation mainland Chinese roots.
      You have such serious analytical deficits and cognitive biases that I can only suggest therapy or meditation, although I doubt you’d try either and, to be honest, I doubt either would work–guess you’re too far gone. Just one favour–please don’t post ever again.

  24. If you go to the wealthiest parts of town in my city, Kobe, you’ll find a disproportionately high number of “one character” nameplates. Typically most of those families have been here for several generations (which is generally the case in cities with Chinatowns, such as Kobe, Nagasaki, Yokohama) and although they have Chinese names, they are more Japanese than anything else. They are referred to as “kakyo” by the old-timers here in Kobe, and are pretty much thought of as Japanese people with Chinese heritage, good connections, and great business acumen, none of which could be regarded as disadvantages in this day and age. They’ve done well here.

    Recently I hear that parvenus from the mainland have been snapping up prime real estate. A kakyo man told me that he had found the home of his dreams in central Kobe, near his successful restaurant, and was close to sealing the deal when suddenly a mainlander swooped in and stole it from under his nose, paying for the whole thing in cash. He was really shocked, as he couldn’t understand that a “new outsider” would be given precedence over an “old outsider.” I think that we are going to see a culture clash between the Chinese-Chinese and the Japanese-Chinese in the future, and I’m interested to see how it plays.

  25. I daresay you’ve outdone yourself with this one. Bravo.

  26. My god it’s good, I really like to see those pictures of backstreet Tokyo…
    I’ve been there but my passage was way too brief to explore the essence of what can be described or shown here. By the way I’ve been reading more and more of your articles theses days. I really enjoy!

  27. fantastic, this article brought back my love for mishima, my fave line was about the risk of suicide those small apartments make- beautifully evinced

  28. Pingback: Jumble Spoiler – 08/13/14 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

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