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.

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