03.29.11

Junot Diaz Savors Tokyo

Junot Díaz praises the Japanese capital's insane urbanism, costume tribes, and salsa in Roppongi in part of Newsweek International's "The City" series.

I always had a sense that I would fall in love with Tokyo. In retrospect I guess it's not that surprising. I was of the generation that had grown up in the '80s when Japan was ascendant (born aloft by a bubble whose burst crippled its economy for decades), and I'd fed on a steady diet of anime and samurai films. Tokyo for all sorts of reasons spoke to me. By the time I was ready to start having fantasies about any city other than New York, Tokyo was already "the default setting of the future"— Blade Runner city!—and whether because of my childhood poverty or personal inclination, the future was where I longed to be.

It took a while—I wasn't the kind of kid who could afford to just up and go wherever he liked—but I did finally make it to Tokyo. My best friend, a Japanese-American who'd relocated back to the home country after college, was hosting me. It was a strange time, really. My friend was scheduled to have open-heart surgery the following month, which was part of the reason I had flown over when I did. You know: just in case. He had pretty much decided that no matter what the doctors said about the risks, he was going to be fine, and all that really mattered at the moment was showing me as much of Tokyo as possible. His way of dealing with it. So that's basically what we did for the next three weeks. Saw Tokyo. Lived it. And predictably I fell in love.

The strangeness of it, the impossible overwhelming scale. With the ramen shop behind my friend's apartment that served the greatest gyoza I'd ever eaten. With his hip neighborhood, Shimo-Kitazawa. With the last trains back from Shibuya, everybody smashed. With the curry shops that were a revelation to me. With the ginkgo trees and the parks that, despite Tokyo's insane urbanism, were everywhere. With the castles and the temples and the costume tribes that gathered in Ueno Park on the weekends. With the fact that you couldn't walk five feet in Tokyo without being tempted by some new deliciousness. With the eyeglass-washing stations. With the crows and the wooden crutches propping up ailing trees. With the glimpse of Mount Fuji from the top of the Metropolitan Government building. With the salsa clubs in Roppongi. With my little train book that I carried with me everywhere.

I could go on. We all can when we talk about the cities we love. Tokyo just did it for me the way London or Rome or Paris or Barcelona does it for other people. My childhood self with all his longings resonated with Tokyo's futurism. My immigrant self grooved on the familiarity of being an utter stranger, of being gaijin No. 1; it was not so long before that America had been as incomprehensible to me as Japan. My apocalyptic self (highly developed after an '80s childhood) froze at the scars of Tokyo's many traumas.

Isn't that what it really means to love a city the way I love Tokyo: to carry within yourself the possibility, however faintly, of its rebirth?

It is a strange thing to love a city. In the end because no city is entirely knowable. What you love really are pieces of it. You are like Dr. Aadam Aziz forever peering at sections of his beloved through the perforated sheet. In Midnight's Children the sheet was finally dropped and the beloved revealed, but with cities that never happens. That is perhaps part of the allure, what brings us back to the cities we love: our desire to accumulate enough pieces so we can finally have it whole within us. But to love a city is also to love who we were at that time we fell in love. For me, my love for Tokyo is intertwined with my love for my best friend, who did, in the end, survive his surgery.

Cities produce love and yet feel none. A strange thing when you think about it, but perhaps fitting. Cities need that love more than most of us care to imagine. Cities, after all, for all their massiveness, all their there-ness, are acutely vulnerable. No city in the world makes that vulnerability more explicit than Tokyo. In the last century alone Tokyo was destroyed two times. Once by the Great Kanto Earthquake and again by the bombings of World War II.

Each time Tokyo has risen anew.

Today, as radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station drifts toward Tokyo, I am again thinking about the vulnerability of cities and of our love for them. Perhaps cities provoke so much love because they know that in that love lies their own endurance. After all, isn't it true that for all their vulnerability, as long as a city is loved by someone it will never truly disappear? Isn't that what it really means to love a city the way I love Tokyo: to carry within yourself the possibility, however faintly, of its rebirth?

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