Aug '08 - Jun '10
It's been a week now since I got into Tokyo, city of a million vending machines. Ever find yourself wandering on alleyway with a hankering for cream of corn soup? For about 80 cents, some chosen vending machines will dispense a yellow corn-soup like liquid into a paper cup. And it's pretty good. Since my last trip here in 2003, I have yet to see the sake and beer vending machine. I am thinking they have disappeared. But there is a BOSS coffee machine outside the apartment I'm staying in.
So I am continuing the research of US military bases (with food and architecture-pilgrimages on the side) here in Japan. It is remarkable that over sixty years after World War II we have such a big presence here (over 100,000 troops and dependents). Japan of course cannot have a military of its own, though it does have a self-defense force which shares missions with the US.
I have four more weeks to cover the islands, heading all the way down to Okinawa where nearly a quarter of the island is a US military base. Already in Tokyo I have found a small base right in the heart of the city, in Roppongi. I watched (and couldn't avoid hearing) a helicopter land while visiting Kisho Kurokawa's National Art Center. The heli pad is right next to the museum.
Such clashes of zoning, while in this case not in control by the city of Tokyo, are common. Itty-bitty Shinto shrines sit next to 40-story towers. FYI, there's a feature on Atelier Bow-wow that talks a bit more about odd "pet" sites. (Incidentally, their Hanamidori Cultural Center was built on former Tachikawa Air Base, which I will be visiting tomorrow.)
Most of the military presence is located to the west and southwest of the city, the major bases being Camp Zama, Atsugi Air Station, Yokota Air Base, and Yokosuka Naval Base. I am focusing on the encroachment issues at Zama and Atsugi, hoping to gain the military's perspective on the community and vice versa.
I first wanted to call this post "militarized Tokyo" but it didn't fit. The city is not militarized in the way that Seoul is, a scant sixty kilometers from North Korea. All males have to serve in the military in Korea, and it is apparent that this conditioning carries on past their time of service. By comparison Tokyo is swanky and very Western. And I thought I had seen some crazy hair in Korea… (Kabuki-cho is definitely a sight to observe some Japanese stallions on loose). Seoul and Tokyo are worlds apart, yet both have a significant US military presence. What makes them feel so different?
Tokyo is a soft city. It is incredibly relenting. This is not a visual experience. I am talking about the cushion of space that people make way for you. The language, both bodily and spoken, is designed to ease the potential awkwardness of strangers crossing paths. Eventually the polite but ubiquitous "Irashaimase!" that store clerks deliver when you walk into their space wears out and becomes annoying. But now my attention is focused on it. In fact, if someone working in a store or restaurant breezes past me without apologizing profusely or at least acknowledging my holy presence with an irashaimase, I feel wronged. God forbid someone bumps into you.
This is a world apart from Korea, where bumping and benign shoving occurs regularly. Seoul is a hard-edged city, and to be honest I miss that. Tokyo on the other hand has very few street stalls and markets. Nor does it have a café culture like much of Europe and some US cities. So what are the streets for? Movement. The streets are a smooth space--this is not to say homogenous--just that the people move like fluid particles. These particles can also be compressed.
Tokyo may appear as a neon-lit steely carapace, but rather it is squishy and permeable. It needs this skyscraper exoskeleton to keep the swelling flesh beneath from over-exposure. I think of an essay Paul Virilio wrote in 1984 called "The Overexposed City" which talks about the compression of time and space by heightened velocities.
(Speed is a Japanese addiction. So is Paris.) What happens to people who are obsessed with getting places faster, with eliminating geographical separations? For one, I think that much of the city is fabricated as a dream, a packaged experience of elsewhere. That is a soft condition to me, which stands in contrast to the reality of military space, the din of jets on training missions, projecting into real space a constant (imagined?) threat which further necessitates the military presence.
I'm digesting this metropolis, trying to crack its order. I am delighted and led by my confusion. I have to consider what I have at hand, given such a limited time to be here. My toolbox is one for exploring military space, and I am beginning to see it everywhere: in the white gloved hands of train attendants methodically checking the platform and motioning that all is clear; in the regulated space of the every day which protects against violations of personal space (you can walk here in this direction but not there in that direction); in the neat lines of people waiting to board the commuter trains, to head into the city to keep the economic treads rolling.
The economic treads need to keep rolling with a six billion dollar price tag of hosting US troops in Japan under a so-called "sympathy budget." This is a drop in the bucket of a triple-digit trillion-dollar economy, but the issue is more a psychological one. Can you imagine a foreign military with a helicopter landing pad and barracks in the middle of your capital city? But Tokyo has it easy compared to Okinawa. More on that when I (eventually) get there.