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    soft Tokyo

    Nick Sowers
    Mar 13, '09 12:02 PM EST

    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.


    • interesting perspective.

      there are still yattai (movable shops) in the city. probably not where you are going because tourists and highschool kids (shibuya-shinjuku-harajuku) and young execs looking for a party and hooking up (roppongi). They are not as common as they used to be though, however in a city of 30 million pretty much any vision of tokyo you are looking for can be found, from traditional to hi-tech. even bits of street culture (though you might not be welcome in some of them as a foreigner). it is not uniform.

      korea is absolutely more agressive. tokyo (and japan) is like austria, very comfortable, but not exactly vital anymore. on other hand the arrows directing you to walk up one section of stairs in subway and down another is not really paid attention to until rush hour when the sheer numbers makes it silly to go against the flow. i imagine it is the same anywhere in the world except that japanese have codified the process. when you leave the center though none of the above applies.

      the american military is not welcome in japan. since i have been here the news is almost always limited to stories (real stories, not fabricated) of soldiers raping japanese, etc. and over the years the american presence is being eroded and nationalism beginning to gain ground. If North Korea were not so beligerent (kidnapping japanese nationals, sending "test missiles" over the country, etc) i guess america would be long gone, like turkey through the corn.

      give me a shout if you feel like visiting the edges of the city or need help with the language, etc.

      Mar 13, 09 7:38 pm  · 

      Nick i have thousands of photos from Tachikawa Air Base 1945 to1977, also have a web site for Tachi ab, check the tachikawa city library its across from the tachikawa palace hotel. they have a section for tachikawa air base. emails me direct at [email protected]

      Mar 13, 09 11:07 pm  · 

      that was a beautiful comparison of seoul and tokyo. i have often compared those two cities in terms that are similar to what New York is to London.
      May you be continue to be delighted and led by your confusion.

      Mar 13, 09 11:40 pm  · 

      Greetings from back home!

      Mar 14, 09 7:11 am  · 

      jump--I found some great street stalls outside the mukogaokan-yuen station today on the way to nihon minka-en (a must for any architourist to Tokyo).

      99 yen stores forever.

      yokota--thanks for the lead, I just dropped you an email.

      fiver--New York is to London as Seoul is to Tokyo? CCTV is the boss instead of the American military, I guess.

      TGM--you want a ride on that thing, admit it.

      Mar 14, 09 11:51 am  · 


      Well observed and well written

      I wonder how much of what you perceive as softness is a hangover from feudal and Samurai and Rinzai Zen and American occupation which are hierarchic and vertical in their structure.

      More a diffidence than a softness.

      Patty and I enjoyed the open air push carts and permanent stalls outside some of the shrines we visited on market days.


      Mar 15, 09 4:04 pm  · 

      Ha! What were you doing out at Mukogaoka-yuen? I put in some time out at Seika Univ.

      Tokyo's been phasing out the beer vending machines the last couple of decades. Much more ubiquitous down in Kansai.

      Mar 17, 09 3:48 pm  · 

      i love tokoyo, i would love to visit it, seeing all there vending machines and technology would be pretty awsome Sppofcard app

      Nov 24, 09 12:38 pm  · 

      Great post & interesting. Well written, I enjoyed reading your post.

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      Nov 25, 09 11:21 pm  · 

      Those vending machines sound crazy! I mean obviously really convenient - but how tasty is the food? Do the Japanese really use these often? Is there an obesity problem in the country?

      The pictures are awesome, by the way.

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      Nov 29, 09 12:32 am  · 

      Nothing personal and no offense please. I don't love tokyo. Can't even find a place to relax or refreshing. City life really bad.

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      Nov 29, 09 2:47 am  · 
      Michael J

      Awesome images, however, one thing that I have always wondered is whether the electronic in Japan is equally expensive like in the U.S? Some people claim that if you buy stuff by using your credit card you can skip the tax when it is shipped to you? Is that correct or is it just a myth? I am considering to purchase an Iphone from there but I don't know whether the tax law allows that?

      Nov 30, 09 9:58 am  · 

      Hi Nick,

      Great comparison of Tokyo and well-written.

      What is your favorite time of the year to visit? I really want to go one of these days and experience the interesting and rich culture.

      The vending machines seem like a great idea.. but I wonder about the cost to maintain them and keep up with newer technology. I wonder if you can purchase rental home insurance from a vending maching too?

      Seems like a timesaver, but it does reduce human interactions and I wonder how that evolves in the long run. Keep up the great work and thank you.

      Dec 1, 09 12:35 am  · 

      this is kind of hilarious.

      Dec 1, 09 1:19 am  · 

      Tokyo is, first of all, seats of the highest economic division of labour. How ever They are persons who identify themselves by signs on their residences and who are ready at the dinner hour in correct attire, so that they can be quickly called upon if a dinner party should consist of thirteen persons.

      Dec 4, 09 4:34 am  · 

      oh my, that is beautiful. I am visiting tokyo, Japan this december. It will be fun because I was born there. I will see where i was born after 20 years. I think japan is a beautiful country to visit. cheapest voip

      Dec 6, 09 1:52 pm  · 

      My dad was there years back and said he loved it there, beautiful city!

      Warmest Regards
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      Dec 8, 09 11:25 am  · 

      Soup vending machines? That sounds like heaven to me, especially when it's the middle of the night and you just want that little something to hit the spot. picture to painting

      Dec 9, 09 6:11 pm  · 

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      Dec 20, 09 3:37 am  · 

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      Dec 22, 09 4:40 am  · 

      I think beer vending machines are the best! insanity workout

      Dec 30, 09 10:45 am  · 

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      Jan 11, 10 1:37 am  · 

      Tokyo being one of the well-known country for this is pretty amazing. I'm planning to visit this coming month. and hopefully will enjoy my vacation there! ;)

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      Feb 8, 10 6:42 pm  · 

      Great post! really well written! very interesting to read =)

      Aug 30, 10 1:11 am  · 

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