Written shortly after the Fukushima catastrophe. Appeared in Newsweek. March 28, 2011
I always had a sense that I would fall in love with Tokyo. In retrospect I guess it’s not that surprising; I was the generation which had grown up in the 80s when Japan was ascendant (born aloft by a bubble whose burst that cripple its economy for decades) and I’d fed on a steady diet of anime and samurai films. Tokyo for all sorts of reasons spoke to me. By the time I was ready to start having fantasies about any city other than NYC, Tokyo was already “the default setting of the future”—blade runner city!—and whether because of my childhood poverty or personal inclination the future was where I longed to be.
It took a while—I wasn’t the kind of kid who could afford to just up and go wherever he liked—but I did finally make it Tokyo. My best friend, a Japanese-American who’d relocated back to the home country after college, was hosting me. It was a strange time, really. my friend was scheduled to have open heart surgery the following month for a recently-discovered heart-valve defect which was part of the reason I had flown over when I did. You know: just in case. Despite the health fears that hovered overhead my friend was characteristically unworried. He had pretty much decided that no matter what the doctors said about the risks he was going to be fine and all that really mattered at the moment was showing me as much of Tokyo as possible. His way of dealing with it, I guess and by following his lead my way too. So that’s basically what we did for the next three weeks. Saw Tokyo. Lived it. And predictably I fell in love.
With what? The typical stuff. All the bells and whistles of its modernity. The strangeness of it, the impossible overwhelming scale. With the ramen shop behind my friend’s apartment that served the greatest gyoza I’d ever eaten. With his hip neighborhood Shimo-Kitazawa. With the last trains back from Shibuya, smashed with everybody else. With the curry shops which were a revelation to me. With the ginkgo trees and the parks that despite Tokyo’s insane urbanism were everywhere. With the castles and the temples and the costume tribes that gathered in Ueno Park on the weekends. With the fact that you couldn’t walk five feet in Tokyo without being tempted by some new deliciousness. With the eyeglass washing stations. With the crows and the wooden crutches propping up ailing trees. With the glimpse of Mount Fuji from the top of the Metropolitan Government building. With the salsa clubs in Roppongi. With my little train book that I carried with me everywhere.
I could go on. We all can when we talk about the cities we love. Tokyo just did it for me the way London or Rome or Paris or Barcelona does it for other people. My childhood self with all his longings resonated with Tokyo’s futurism. My immigrant self grooved on the familiarity of being an utter stranger, of being gaijin number one; it was not so long that America had been as incomprehensible to me as Japan. My apocalyptic self (highly developed after an 80’s childhood) froze at the scars of Tokyo’s many traumas.
It is a strange thing to love a city. In the end because no city is entirely knowable what you love really are pieces of it. You are like Doctor Aziz forever peering at sections of his beloved through the perforated sheet. In Midnight’s Children the sheet was finally dropped and the beloved revealed but with cities that never happens. You are eternally gazing through the sheet at the fragments. That is perhaps part of the allure, what brings us back to the cities we love; our desire to accumulate enough pieces so we can finally have it whole within us. But to love a city is also to love who were at that time we fell in love. For me my love for Tokyo is intertwined with my love for my best friend who did in the end survive his surgery. It is entwined with my childhood selves who had dreamed their own imaginary Tokyo. Entwined with who I was at the time of the visit: young enough where everything still seemed possible. Before because of the choices I made the broad avenues of options started slowly being sealed off. When I love Tokyo I love also the young me that city revealed and memorialized. I return to Tokyo as I often do, I think, in order to re-encounter that old love and that old self; but also with the hope that on the site of my old love I will be granted a new one.
Cities produce love and yet feel none. A strange thing when you think about it but perhaps fitting. Cities need that love more than most of us care to imagine. Cities after all for all their massiveness, all their there-ness, are acutely vulnerable. No city in the world makes that vulnerability more explicit than Tokyo. In the last century alone Tokyo has been destroyed two times. Once by the Great Kanto Earthquake and again by the bombings of World War 2.
Each time Tokyo has risen anew.
Today as radiation from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station drifts towards Tokyo I am again thinking about the vulnerability of cities and of our love for them.
Perhaps cities provoke so much love because they know that in that love lies their own endurance. After all isn’t it true that for all their vulnerability as long as a city is loved by someone it will never truly disappear? Isn’t that what it really means to love a City the way I love Tokyo: to carry within yourself the possibility, however faintly, if it’s rebirth?