"Stories help shape the jumble of the present into something reassuring": But where was the real Tokyo?

The Tokyo skyline, with Mount Fuji behind it. Image: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty.

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My arrival in Tokyo triggered an audio-visual snow crash. Our group of English teachers staggered red-eyed and exhilarated from Narita airport and slept upright on the train that drew us into the city. Then, stung by sunlight and late-summer heat, we emerged from the underground, falling headlong into the electrified plungepool of Shinjuku.

In the centre, I felt like everything yelled for my attention, and my head soon ached with trying to decipher the crackling static of this new language. Waves of salarymen, miserably overdressed for the heat, poured around us; flashing signs and billboards jostled overhead, and the whole carnival was set to dated muzac, which burbled from escalators and department stores.

And the scale of the place is inhuman. I believed that I had travelled before arriving in Japan in 2006, but I had felt never felt this dumbstruck.


Now, almost ten years and many trips to Tokyo later, I wonder how many of those first few days really happened the way I remember. I was wired on adrenaline, I barely slept. There are dream-like jump cuts in my memory; it’s early morning and I look out from a high floor of the Keio Plaza Hotel; I am being jostled through a narrow street crowded with ramen stalls; I tentatively prod something translucent and fish-like with chopsticks in a dim, subterranean restaurant, late at night.

Long before I came to know the city, or at least have a working knowledge of its surfaces, I'd only ever seen Tokyo’s iconic skyline razed to the ground in Akira, the classic 1980s cyberpunk anime. This was not the only time fiction buttressed experience and memory of Tokyo. That view from the Keio Plaza? I took in the same view at night —sinister red lights now studded the tallest skyscrapers—and all I could see was the opening to Blade Runner, the camera panning over towers and plumes of fire and smoke.

Or my first night in Tokyo, drunk with new friends in a low-tabled izakaya, singing karaoke in a box overlooking the twinkling skyline. Was that us? Or was that Lost in Translation? Where was the real Tokyo?

Whenever I arrive in a new city, especially when faced with the incalculable scale of somewhere like Tokyo, I quickly reach for stories because they help shape the jumble of the present into something reassuring and comprehensible. But stories can also oversimplify and close us off to experience. I love “The Most Photographed Barn in the World” passage from Don DeLillo's White Noise:

Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn... We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future.  We've agreed to be part of a collective perception… A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.

As a foreigner gliding across the surface of the city those first few days, this is exactly how Tokyo felt; otherworldly, unreal. Because, in a way, I had already seen the bustling pedestrian intersection at Shinjuku, or the parade of costumed eccentrics in Harajuku, countless time before.

Take Mt. Fuji. In woodblock prints by 18th century ukiyo-e painters, it is often depicted as serene, dusted with snow. And yet friends who climbed the well-trod icon could only admit to being underwhelmed. It amounted to little more than an eight-hour queue up a steep, gravelly slope to the summit where, if they were lucky and the cloud cleared, they got some half-decent views.

The reality of the experience didn't quite square with the Fuji they'd pre-seen. As Alex Kerr points out in Dogs & Demons, Japanese shrines, temples and zen gardens are regularly shot to keep out of frame the unsightly shops, apartment blocks and telephone wires that crowd around them. It is all too easy to see the cities we've gone looking for.


The city skyline by night. Image: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty. 

However, I wasn't illiterate, or a tourist, for long.  Living in rural northern Japan improved my Japanese very quickly, and I threw myself into daily life. And I went back to Tokyo as often as I could afford. My parts of the city, my experiences and stories, took on a tangible, idiosyncratic form that was mine alone. DeLillo's comment came to seem less and less profound.

Towards the end of my time in Japan, a colleague asked me what my favourite Japanese place was. I liked the village where I worked, but it couldn't compare with the capital. Tokyo was a dazzling place, with endless things to see and do, and my strongest memories – an overnight bus trip to see Radiohead, or New Years' at the colossal AgeHa club in 2008 – painted a picture of a city that could never grow boring.

I liked its anonymity. People didn't stare the way they sometimes did in the countryside, and I could float around unnoticed. Yet I also had great friends to ground my experience in something real.

I answered that I really liked Tokyo. He replied gruffly: “Tokyo's not Japan.” OK, I could see what he meant. On the surface of things, the glittering international cosmopolis, its youth and pace of life, bore little resemblance to the towns and villages, where the population is ageing and traditional values and rituals still have a central place in daily life. But after three years on a teaching program where transience was the norm, Tokyo had become a more real place for me, somewhere I could go anytime and start where I left off.


In 2015, I worked briefly in a small tourist town on the Spanish coast. Aside from towering castle ruins and bone-white beaches, the place was only notable for its improbable international airport and complex of EU buildings overlooking the Mediterranean.

On a quiet Saturday morning, I set out early and got purposefully lost in the old town at the foot of the castle. I found brightly painted houses, worn stone staircases, cooking smells and conversations spilling out from kitchen windows. This was the real Spain, I thought, triumphantly.

And as soon as the thought had popped into my head, I knew it was rubbish. The scene had merely resonated with a Spain I already knew from TV, films, books – a Spain I had gone looking for.  I see now that this desire to secure “real” experience is just symptomatic of the loneliness and confusion of a new place. That urge wore off in Spain, once I'd made good friends and found things to do, and it wore off in Japan, too.

Are there any real Tokyos? There are certainly mine. And each time I go back, new experiences reframe my half-remembered stories, and both undercut their verity and make them, and my relationships, more real.

Dan Bradley is a writer and translator from Japanese. His translation of ‘Mambo’ by Hitomi Kanehara appears in The Book of Tokyo: A City in Fiction, an anthology of new Japanese fiction from Comma Press. He lives in London.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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