Tokyo Damage Report

Yoyogi Park and Japanese-vs.-western conceptions of public space

 I don’t know about Osaka, Hokkaido or Okinawa, but in Tokyo, the idea of public space is totally different than the West. It took me a long time to put my finger on what was different ? because the public spaces look just like what you’d see in a western city: same tall buildings, busy streets, lights and crowds . . . but the WAY PEOPLE THINK ABOUT IT is totally different.


For example, let’s start with the obvious thing that most tourists notice: no trash cans. For that matter, no water fountains, no benches outdoors, no toilets, and only 2 big parks for a city of over 10,000,000 million people. Sure there are a hundred small parks, but in practice they contain no grass- just a dirt lot with a pathetic slide and some homeless dudes camping out. Common point: there is no infrastructure for Chilling. This is weird considering that most people in Tokyo are coming from faraway suburbs, and can’t pop home for a quick glass of water and get off their feet. And it’s exceptionally weird considering how efficient and comprehensive the public transit system is; if the Japanese put their minds to something, they can create a world-famous infrastructure.


Basically, the message is: Buy And Get Out. Anyone moving around in Tokyo is expected to either be a) on the way to work to make money for The Boss, or b) on the way to shop to make money for The Storeowner. If your feet hurt, you gotta go to a cafe and order a $3 coffee – you gotta pay the middleman. If you want some water, it’s a vending machine and a $1.20 “energy drink.” – another middleman. If you run into an old friend and you want to have a conversation, you gotta go off the street and into a Makudonarudo ($4). In fact, Japanese love a middle-man so much, even if they want to have a party, they will sometimes rent a cafe (and charge the guests!) rather than invite people into their home.


It’s easy to point out the “buy and go home” situation, but harder to explain the cultural assumptions that lead to this situation. I’ll try. In the West, anything outside a damn building is Public– Even in notoriously busy, fast-walking, don’t-talk-to-strangers NYC, people always kick it on stoops, and they walk around with their big radios playing, street musicians and shit like that. Even ritzy 5 th avenue has hella benches. In other words, If it ain’t owned by someone in particular, it’s yours; sidewalks, stoops, stairs in front of the library, anything that you can sit on or yell from. Tokyo people do not share this assumption. To Tokyo-ites, leaving a building just means you are in a scary no-mans-land and there are unknown strangers everywhere so you better put your head down, don’t make eye contact, and walk to your destination, almost running into 10 people who are doing the same thing.


The only exception to this is the passing-out-flyers people. They can yell through megaphones and disturb as many people as they want, but it is ok because it is Commerce (buy and get out). Guys hunting for potential prostitutes, running up on lone women and chasing them, also ok. Business. The other exception is teenagers. The lack of real “public” space is so pronounced, that one of the key teenage-rebel-delinquent things to do is simply to SIT. On the ground. That’s it. “My legs are tired and there are no benches so I am going to sit in the sidewalk, what?” : That is considered a threat to the social order.


Many new arrivals to Tokyo are struck by the contradiction: public space is more closed than the West; (a common thing my Japanese friends say after their first trip to America: “people say hi to each other on the street, even if they don’t know each other? That is amazing!”) BUT — in some ways public space is much more open than the West ? you can drink in public, sleep / do your makeup / look at titty pictures on the train, and after dark dudes urinate / vomit outdoors like pretty much anywhere.


But it’s not really a contradiction. the common thread is, “mind your own business.” As long as the people around you can safely ignore you, you can get away with anything. However, doing something the least bit interactive/noise-producing is seen as really startling. Every culture deals with potential conflict in its own way ? America with arguing, Columbia with guns, Thais just smile and tell you what you want to hear (and then proceed do whatever they want), and Australians have evolved a total lack of embarrassibility. Tokyo, on the other hand, deals with conflict by pretending it doesn’t exist: Welcome to the most passive-aggressive country on the planet.



Again, I have no idea if this is a Japanese thing or a big-city problem or just a Tokyo problem. However, I do have a Tokyo SOLUTION: yoyogi.

(click on the picture to see full-sized image)

Yoyogi park is pretty much the only spot in Tokyo with a western conception of public space ? and judging by how crowded it is, a lot of traditional Japanese seem to enjoy it and want more. It is internationally famous as The Joint Where Kids Do Cosplay On A Bridge, but there is way more to it than that. Yoyogi park is the place where people do any hobby too noisy to do at home. And there is such a wonderful variety of weird hobbies– you’ll find 2 college kids practicing a comedy routine next to an old geezer doing scales on a tuba, next to the most serious jugglers you ever saw, next to a really top-notch double-dutch jumprope team, next to a dude with ferrets in a basket, next to no less than 3 rival drum-circles, and then there are the skateboarders, tai chi motherfuckers, brazillian kickbox maniacs, human-pyramid cheerlead gangs, and even bagpipe dudes. Plus the one legendary dude who just walks around with an ipod and yells U2 songs at the top of his lungs to no one in particular. And that’s just people rehearsing! When you count the people playing soccer, badminton, baseball, volleyball, and whateverball, it gets hella amazing. Plus the no-eye-contact rule is lifted ? everyone is part performer, part spectator. You can stroll along and partake of the smorgasbord of eccentricity. And on Sunday it just explodes with performance action: a dozen crappy pop bands, plus the famous Rockabilly Dancin’ Grandpa Team, the Free Hug Squad, and (on one occasion) some random MILFs wearing negligees holding huge signs reading “Let’s save the world with feminity!”

"let’s respect the plants" plaque + men’s random underpants = art.

Plus it has its own life cycle: at 6 am it’s run by old people jogging and exercising to marching band music. at noon it is run by a thousand elementary school kids on a field trip, wearing color-coded hats. After that, the ball-game crowd has the run of the joint, and around midnight it’s open for can’t-afford-a-hotel outdoor fucking. Even the homeless benefit- they got these totally elaborate houses made from tarpaulins and cardboard, but the dudes are never acting psycho- they just want to nap on a cardboard sheet and maybe listen to horserace scores on a little radio. Pretty much the only rule is : you can’t sell anything. Maybe I am a hippy but I love this place. Not just the randomness and pretty nature, but also the fact that there is no middleman for once. If you want to Chill you can go there for free, 24 hours a day.

In fact, that would be a pretty good model for a municipal government; whatever city has the most parks, and the most people spending the most time in those parks, wins. What if the priority wasn’t “how much can big business make off the citizens?” or “oh shit we got money left over in the department budget we gotta waste it all or else they’ll cut our budget next year!” . . .what if the priority was simply, how many motherfuckers can spend 6 hours in the park today? What if the priority was not, “how much landlord ass can we kiss?” or “how much can we pad the city contracts with kickbacks?” but “how many parks can we build?” what if the priority was not, “Let’s crank out fake celebrity after celebrity and make people pay for their goods,” but “let the people entertain each other for free.” I’m not saying this government will ever happen; just saying that the park-time-per-person-per-week ratio of a city is an excellent indicator of its quality of life.


And now, a big picture!

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  1. […] with green grass, trash cans, street performances, or people sitting down eating in public.   (see my rant on the subject here) […]

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