Japan Thru Non-Japanese Eyes

Laurence Bush (USA) outsider@jps.net

Tokyo: Strangely Familiar


Western Cultural Everywhere

Outside the museums, visiting Japanese music and video stores provided another surprise. Western cultural imports dominate the scene. The latest Hollywood movies and western rock and roll CDs filled the stores. The J-Pop (Japanese popular music) section was usually small in comparison and Japanese movies even smaller. The diversity of music products: world beat, jazz, classical and latin music is much broader in Japan. It has a truly cosmopolitan culture equally at home with the East and the West.

As one writes about horror literature, I was amazed to see that Japanese read a great deal of horror translated from English, both old and new. H.P.Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King appeared regularly in Japanese bookstores as well as dozens lesser known names. I even found a bookstore with the English name "Dunwich Horror", after an H.P. Lovecraft story. One would never see that in America.

The Unknown Culture

While the Japanese know a great deal about our culture, Americans know little about Japan's. Back in California, most people I talked to about my trip to Japan could not name a single tourist attraction in Japan, let alone Tokyo. They knew hardly any Japanese books or films, with the possible exceptions of Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu) or Speed Racer. The cultural trade imbalance is much more severe than the financial one.

Manga the Literary Daily Bread

It was also a surprise that the largest manifestation of Japanese culture was the comic book. Huge stacks of thick comic books, or manga as they're called locally, appeared daily at every minimart, newstand, subway station, and magazine stall. Unlike America where comics are largely directed at young people, young and old alike were reading manga everywhere.

The many types of manga is staggering. Romance, fantasy and adventure were common themes but also sports, history, business and education. One manga I picked up, with the English title "Brains", told the story of how Alan Turing and Erich von Neuman first conceived of the digital computer. Another had a seven page text article on a Nobel Prize winning chemist from Europe, who I'm ashamed to say, I never heard of.

Order in the Random City

After the first week in Tokyo, it began to lose its appearance of randomness. It has an interesting organization by neighborhood. The Ginza is the shopping district, Shibuya the fashion/pop culture district, Akihabara electronics, and Yanaka temples. Every place seemed to have a speciality, even dolls or antiques. The Kanda has a large concentration of bookstores. It would be interesting to make a map of Tokyo that showed all its specialty areas.

After our eleven days in Tokyo were over, we were exhausted. The city is so vast and there is so much to see that there's a compulsion to rush about madly to see as much as possible. But we had a quiet final moment sitting in Ueno Park as the sun was setting. Among the traditional Japanese features of the park is an American Indian totem pole. It no longer seemed out of place.


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