Last weekend I traveled to Tokyo to take part in the annual Asian Studies Japan Conference (ASCJ) held at International Christian University or ICU. There I gave a paper presentation on the subject of early jazz networks in the Asia Pacific region. This is a topic I am currently researching that expands upon on my work on Shanghai’s jazz age.
While in Tokyo I caught up with two old friends: James Farrer, co-author of our book Shanghai Nightscapes and Cliff Bernstein, who was my freshman trip leader at Dartmouth back in 1987. Both James and Cliff have lived in Japan for a very long time. James is on his 20th year there, where he has been working as a professor of sociology at Sophia University. Cliff is an entrepreneur and businessman and he has been living in Japan for 26 years now—basically since he graduated from Dartmouth in 1989 with a few breaks in between. Both are quite fluent in Japanese, though I'd say Cliff has the edge on James (but then again James is also fluent in Chinese as well).
One thing I really enjoy about visiting Japan is that I can speak the language. I studied Japanese in the early 1990s during my first two years as a grad student at Columbia. Columbia had—and still has, I assume—an excellent Japanese language program. I only took three years of Japanese, pretty intensively over a two-year period, including a summer at Middlebury College. This was enough to establish a firm grasp of basic Japanese, but not enough to make me fluent in the language. Of course for that to happen, I would have to spend a few years living in Japan, which unfortunately I have never had the chance to do. I did spend a few months during the summer of 1993 in Sapporo (another story for another time) and during that time I was able to achieve a certain level of conversational proficiency. Since then, my Japanese has languished, as I’ve spent most of my time focusing on China and the Chinese language instead.
Nevertheless, I always find that when I do travel to Japan, my basic survival skills return quite quickly. Usually the first day or two are awkward, but after a few days there, my basic language skills come streaming back, and words and phrases I haven’t thought of for years are back on my tongue-tip. I always find it very rewarding to be able to communicate and to understand what people are saying (unless they speak too quickly or with a strong accent and then I’m lost).
Tokyo is always a bewildering city for me. I’ve been there several times over the past fifteen years or so, usually for conferences. I always find that I have to relearn the basic geography of the city and figure out how to navigate it on the train and subway lines (really the only way to get around). This time around I was greatly aided by my smart phone and google maps!
It always takes considerable effort to remember the line names and the names of the big stations let alone the smaller ones. Of course I know Shinjuku fairly well by now, but even so, I always find that station and its surrounding neighborhood a labyrinthine experience. Like Theseus and the proverbial Minotaur, I wind my way through a maze of tunnels and passages, only I’m usually searching for some restaurant or bar or electronics store. When I see other foreigners who are obviously tourists, I always wonder how they are able to navigate this city without knowing the language—even knowing how to speak and read Japanese, I find it plenty difficult enough.
It helps to have a guide, and James is about the best guide to Tokyo I could imagine. Over the years, he has been focusing his sociological lens increasingly on that city's neighborhood life, particularly food culture. And this is one of the best food cities on the planet! While most people might associate Tokyo with Japanese food (obviously), what impressed me on this trip is the stunning variety not just of cuisines in the neighborhoods of Tokyo, but also of the people who run and staff restaurants.
James lives in Nishi-ogikubo, which he and others affectionately call Nishiogi. This is a smaller neighborhood west of Shinjuku on the Chuo line, which cuts through the center of the city running east-west and is one of the oldest train lines in Tokyo. Most if not all neighborhoods in Tokyo are centered around the train stations. Nishiogi is no exception. Late one afternoon and into the evening, James led me on a stroll of his neighborhood while pointing out restaurants and other establishments that he is researching as part of his online research site Nishiogiology.org. I highly recommend checking out his Japanese-English website which documents his research, telling stories about the various entrepreneurs and establishments in this neighborhood. During our tour, I took photos and later put them together with James’s narration of the tour to create a video which I posted on youtube. https://youtu.be/M5AxAPwZrAM
It’s about 8 minutes long and gives you a feel for what his tour and his research are all about. I can’t recommend a better guide (in English at least) to illuminate the life of this neighborhood in Tokyo, not to mention many others that he also knows quite well.
James recommended that I stay in the adjacent neighborhood of Kichijoji, which has recently emerged as a hot and trendy area of the city. It has a stunningly beautiful park called Inokashira Koen, which alone makes it worth the visit. Other than that, the area around the station is a nest of alleyways full of restaurants, bars, and boutique shops, and it seems to be a hot nightspot for urban youths.
While staying there at the Kichijoji Dai-ichi Hotel (which I highly recommend for its location and price) I sampled a few bar-restaurants in this warren of alleyways and found them very eclectic. I was surprised to find that there are many Nepalese workers in the restaurants, which serve a wide variety of western and Asian styles of food, all of it delicious. They are all quite fluent in Japanese. As James highlights in his tour of Nishiogi, this is a trend not just in Tokyo but all over Japan, and it appears that Nepalese and other South Asian cuisines are taking over from Chinese cuisine as the mainstay of working class food culture.
Of course no trip to Tokyo would be complete without at least one pure Japanese meal of sashimi, tempura and other goodies. James took me to one of the finest sushi spots in the neighborhood of Yotsuya, where Sophia University is located. We also had a meal at a French bistro on the other side of campus and that was delicious too (and the Japanese waiter spoke fluent French and English).
While visiting James’s university, I also checked out their summer study abroad program and ended up sitting in a class on modern and contemporary Japanese literature run by Professor Alisa Freedman. All I can say is that her students, who seemed very bright and diverse, are incredibly lucky to have her as a teacher!
After giving my paper at the ASCJ at ICU (also a beautiful campus, much more woodsy than the more urban Sophia), I took a two-hour train ride down south to Kamakura to catch up with my old Dartmouth friend and sempai, Cliff Bernstein. It was great to hang out with Cliff for the evening and stroll around his neighborhood in Kamakura, where he now lives. I had been there once around 15 years ago and remember the fine temples, but hadn’t seen the beach.
Cliff took me to one of his local favorites, a more subdued yet gorgeous temple called Komyo-ji which overlooks the beach. Its classic wooden structures fit in well with the surroundings.
After strolling around the beach and seeing some of the fine beach houses and plenty of folks walking their dogs, we headed over to a cafe called Navy Yard. There we saw a Japanese trio of musicians perform a beautiful concert of Cuban music ala “Buena Vista Social Club.” The trio consisted of amazing violinist Sayaka, her husband Genki who drums, dances, and sings, and guitarist Mucho. They sang the songs mostly in Spanish but threw in some Japanese lyrics for good measure. The audience was a mix of local residents and some folks who came from quite a distance to see the band. According to Cliff, they perform there around once a year. The cafe was packed with people young and old, many of whom were dancing throughout the performance. When Sayaka asked people who had been to Cuba before, many people raised their hands.
Although Japanese have a reputation for being somewhat closed off culturally, my visits to Tokyo over the years have shown me just the opposite. This is a city and a people who are eager to explore the world and to bring the cultures, cuisines, and music of the globe to Japan.
It helps that Japan is largely an affluent and well-educated society. While I think the same could be said of many Chinese people these days, Japan has a big head start on post-socialist China, and also it doesn’t seem to have the extremes of wealth and poverty that have developed in China since the 1990s—which is the subject of a book called Polarized Cities that James and I contributed a chapter to and which will be published soon.
Looking at both countries on a macro-level, one could argue that the smaller island nation of Japan was able to more efficiently distribute its resources to its people. China with its vast landlocked hinterlands has a fundamental structural problem when it comes to wealth distribution, since the inner provinces don’t have the natural advantages of the coastal ones—hence the flow of hundreds of millions of migrants to the coastal provinces over the past two decades. Regardless, I always feel that both nations have a great deal to learn from each other.
Over the next few years I plan to devote more of my research and writing and publications to the subject of Sino-Japanese relations, both in their most painful moments (meaning WWII) and in the more recent and contemporary era. I find it fascinating and fruitful to compare the cities of Tokyo and Shanghai, which I did for many years in my course called Global Nightlife. And I will take any excuse to get back to Tokyo and also see more of Japan, and to keep up with and maybe even improve upon my Nihongo.