Letter from Tokyo

SŽrie "Our Day", Allowance, 1965
Haruo Tomiyama, “Allowance,” from The Linguistic Sense of Our Day (1965, also cited as “Tolerance”)

Hello again, Japan! It’s been 9 years since the first and only time I visited. I know it’s not you, it’s me who has changed. Japan, you cast a formidable shadow among even the well-traveled, and even if it takes less time and a shorter distance to reach you than, say, Portugal or Germany or the US of A, it’s hard to find a home in you. No amount of Manga or Anime, Sushi or Ramen, Murakami or Oe can change the fact that you are so different up front, and I say this not in the way I would tell my friends about a bad date. You are what you are: you are generous without the warmth, and despite the security you guarantee, somehow you just don’t feel like a safe space (note, I did not say safe place, Japan! I know your crime rates are some of the lowest in the world. We all know that).

I’m here with about a dozen other young cultural workers, or Junior Curators, as the Japan Foundation–our wonderful hosts–refer to us. We are on what has on different occasions been referred to as a “working seminar”, “short-term residency”, “study tour”, or “research fellowship”. It all amounts to the same thing – we are here to see things. And learn.

When I first visited Japan, I was still nursing a heart broken by my having failed to make the cut for the Senshu-Gakko (specialized training school) scholarship for fashion. This was one of many steps towards realizing and then accepting that fashion wasn’t for me. At the time of that visit, I was still deeply fascinated with how people dressed themselves, for which the streets of Tokyo and Tsukuba delivered more than enough. What I couldn’t distinguish then was the difference between traveling for the sake of crossing a border and gawk and gather evidence – of being able to say you’ve arrived somewhere, regardless of where that “somewhere” happened to be – as opposed to going somewhere out of a commitment to something specific.

Whether that something happens to be a monument or a mall, it’s easier to just say we travel for the sake of travel itself. Because we can’t argue with geography, to scale a distance still feels like a challenge to what’s possible.

But plane tickets cost money, so put into perspective, travel is a problem we can throw money at to make it go away. And once this (self-)awareness kicks in, there’s shame in going somewhere to stand next to something; even more shame in the pictures taken to prove it happened, pictures that can buy both the social and cultural capital which prove that yes, indeed, I have seen “the world”.

But…it’s not that it doesn’t matter. Of course it matters that we see the world, but it matters just as much that we see that it’s made of so much more than malls and monuments and people who are not like you. The time, the money, the sheer logistics of getting your body across an ocean in one piece – what are those all for. And if the people we hold near and dear to us can turn out to be strangers, what more with those we encounter only briefly?

If travel is about crisis, then Tokyo does the job pretty damn well. Like, look at this fucking beacon of modernity. Imagine entering a place where every shred of developmental logic goes into making your nasty, brutish, and short life easier; where you gain so much more time because you have to deal with so much less bullshit. Now, where does that time go? Imagine if these were the problems you dealt with each day, imagine the kinds of questions you’d entertain. Imagine becoming a machine. Imagine that only in becoming a machine are you able to grant people the humanity they deserve.

I guess that’s all I have to say about tolerance, about this picture and what it took to create this kind of society. Tomorrow, we fly out to Fukuoka. See you again in a week, Tokyo.

Using Our Feet

Andy Warhol, blotted line drawings, n.d.

I need a new pair of shoes.

There is nothing unusual about this. We are used to hearing women talk about “needing” new things. Blogs have more or less become spaces primarily for talking about what we wear and I, for one, have an unhealthy addiction to pretty footwear. It shows in the collection I’ve amassed over the past decade and a half since my feet have stopped growing. I like shoes. I like that they have a sculptural aspect and that the size constraints are not as cruel as they are with other kinds of clothing.

This time though, I actually need  a new pair of shoes since we have a research tour in Japan in a couple of weeks, and looking at the itinerary (and from the testimonies about the past tours), this looks like it’s going to be pretty brutal. On my feet.

I have about 2 dozen pairs of shoes, a good dozen of which have been in circulation for over 5 years. I have teal creepers, aqua cowboy boots, red ankle boots, leopard print desert boots, low red heels with ankle straps, tricolored monk strap derbies, and a bunch of other things that have stood the test of time and distance. Many were bought second hand, and I am proud of having an eye for the kind of quality that can withstand the beating I put my shoes (and, of course, the rest of my body) through. Despite having more shit to wear on my feet than I’ll ever need, I am still fairly picky when it comes to shoes. This is why most of the stuff I like, I come across by pure chance in a thrift or vintage shop.

Actual Fucking Shoes
After New York, 2011. You’d think I trekked through a fucking desert, but nope. Never buying from primadonna again.

This, unfortunately, is not the case with sneakers. Sneakers are meant to be broken in and are built to last. You just don’t pay second-hand prices for something coated with that much toejam and sentiment. To be more specific, I don’t have the kind of sneakers that can survive nuclear winter in Japan. I need something that can handle both sidewalks and steps, will come off easily at the airport, and can go from the field to the conference hall. Adidas Stan Smiths are a little too pricey since the trend hasn’t died down. Same goes with New Balance and Onitsuka Tigers, and with that I haven’t even gotten into the ridiculous distinctions between styles “for men” and “for women”. They’re shoes, guys, what the fuck.

I tend to pay bargain bin prices for new sneakers because so much of what is relegated to the womenswear section is never built to last, so why shell out? Still we are expected to pay premium prices for subpar quality precisely because of a mindset associated with female consumers that is “capricious” at best and “fickle” at worst. And we still pay, because what alternatives are offered? Even worse, every women’s running shoe or lifestyle sneaker I’ve looked at comes with a stripe of pink or purple or shiny leopard details or gold studs. Who the fuck needs gold studs? I just need to not feel like throwing myself into oncoming traffic after walking for two blocks–or less. I need a running shoe I can actually run in, or at least get me from Tokyo to Hiroshima in the middle of winter without falling apart (especially since shit in Japan is expensive and I’d rather not have to buy anything while I’m there).

What really bothers me is that this is not just about shoes, but about what has been accepted and institutionalized about how women buy and use things. By way of gold studs and needless details, shitty quality notwithstanding, it goes to show that a woman’s shoe is not actually supposed to take her places, but to complement an outfit that never gets dirty. Among other things.

After four years of having taught clothing design and theory, I’ve talked a great deal about form and function. The only function I’m really looking for in this case is for the designed object to go on my feet. And my feet go on the ground. This is the first step to getting somewhere, but somehow we can’t even get that first step right.