Tokyo: The Future at Hand

I'm going to tell you a secret about Tokyo: the world's most populated city, home of the largest producers of vehicles on the planet, has almost no cars on the roads.

Ten million people take the mass transit everyday, a few drive, many millions more bicycle and walk. It's a healthy thought for the future of cities, most grid-locked and choking in pollution,  and the Japanese have already done it.

That scarcity is with purpose. People are healthier if they walk a lot, but in a nation where everyone can afford a car, you must make it unaffordable or unwanted so that everyone lives better.

The same with taxis. If they were so cheap, like in Bangkok, the streets would be crawling with them too.  But although taxis are indeed plentiful, and flagging one is a less-than-a-minute exercise on the main roads, the meter starts at ¥710 (USD 8) and a 5 kilometer ride will set you back at least 15 dollars. But it is an option, and mass transit should include cars "shared" by dozens, not by a single individual using a 2,000 kilo car to drive 2 trips a day.

Let's not forget the absent motorcycle. Honda alone sells 20 million motorcycles globally, before you add the impressive brethren of Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha. Alas, motorcycles can't just be parked anywhere as in most cities.  And it ain't free neither, with motorcycles having designated spaces with parking meters, and I assume steep fines if you dare to park elsewhere.  It then shouldn't come as a surprise that Japanese bicycle brands like Giant are also dominant in their industry. While Amsterdam has 800,000 bicycles, Tokyo is in the top 3 cities for most bicycles/capita.

What makes this a more amazing sell in a city of 30 million inhabitants is that Japan is the largest producer of cars, motorcycles, marine engines on the planet, and these are big industries which you would think have the power they do in France or the USA, to discourage high vehicle taxes or annual duties on their products.  But no, in Japan, you get the feeling they'd be happy to ban the car altogether.  For the good of all...

The Americans were architects of two fledging democracies after World War II.  One was in the Philippines, where the failure of its democratic system stagnates the economy, and causes even some highly educated Filipinos to call for the return to a dictatorship "like Marcos," as a Filipino friend confessed to me, himself landed Spanish-related gentry dating back centuries.

The Japanese democracy project has worked spectacularly, although what makes it work -- the "sacrifice for society" -- was already present, the honor system, the culture of collective responsibility. It shows quietly.

No-one speaks unless spoken to. Even people on the street, that want to do the right thing and help the lost tourist, sort of float into view and make eye contact before softly whispering "can I help ju?"

The trains are eerily silent, as they should be, and the Japanese respect communal space so much you hear no talking, not to each other, no use of cellphones, no advertisements blaring as they do on Bangkok subways, and even teenagers are mindful that their headphones are not "leaking noise" as the posted stickers warn against.  I love it.  Respect. Honor. Neighbor. As it should be.

Humble, but only outwardly. I mean, how can you really be humble when you come from a pile of rocks, thousands of kilometers from anywhere else, with no oil, gas, gold, in fact --just seaweed and sushi -- and yet, you built a nation from the rubble into the third greatest economy in the world, are the leader in most engineered products, and have an export economy delivering billions of deflationary Yen year after year.

There are some strange things about the Japanese. In addition to "tentacle sex" -- yes, imagine a woman being groped all over by a giant octopus and you have an idea of the animae drawings -- or the Cosplay, where mostly women wear full blown costumes in public, and the surgeon masks people wear when they have a cold, but those are all personal behavior choices. Everything else it seems is electricity dependent.

In the little tidy apartment I rented for the research trip, I noted the toilet, shower, tub, microwave, and even the toaster all have LED or push button displays.  Yes, even the toaster. The toilet has no less than 19 buttons, allowing you to flush with 3 different volumes, splash your behind at any angle and any temperature and indeed, spray the ladies area, marked with a red splash symbol.   No, there is no tampon removal button even though it exists in jokes. 

However, I shudder to think what another nuclear disaster or power failure would do to Tokyo society over 48 hours.  There is no manual override to flush with a bucket.  Nothing would function. Not the fridge, the electric grill, not the lift, vents or the TOILET.  And if society broke down on a 3,000 person cruise ship floating over water itself, what would the sound of 30,000,000 disaffected Japanese sound like? 

Actually, we know how since we watched how they handled the Fukishima nuclear disaster: with impeccable manners.  I deign go so far as to say I would rather suffer the end of the world here than Wisconsin or Bangkok or Berlin.

If chaos reigns in much of the world, Order is the Meaning of the Universe in Japan.  The streets are quiet and spotlessly clean, despite not a trash bin to be seen. Late at night, a few cigarette butts can be found, but they are gone by morning.

Long before raw food became a discussion point for health, the Japanese have been eating healthy for centuries, eating raw fish slices, fresh egg yolks, and seaweed wrapped sushi.  Perhaps it's why they live the longest, and have a nation of octogenarians and decigenarions still using their bicycles and taking daily walks.

The food is notoriously healthy. No trans fat.  And before the introduction of beef and pork, virtually no cholesterol in traditional food.
Dessert doesn't exist. What culture doesn't serve sweets at the end of the meal? The Japanese.  Empty and pointless calories for brief satisfaction.  Smart really.

Overall, I'll be back.  Tokyo may appear daunting with dozens of subway routes, road signs mostly in Japanese, and a completely unique culture to navigate, but it'll be easier and just as fun with GROOVY TOKYO Map'n'Guide in your hands. Get it. --- Aaron Frankel, 2015


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