Paul Graham says every city tells you something. In New York it’s Make more money. In Paris, it’s Enjoy life.
I think Tokyo’s message is “Conform” with quotation marks 😉 . Tokyo wants you to follow the rules—or at least appear to follow them—but it tacitly makes room for digressions.
The primary color: grey
I remember watching an anime series about a young man who lived with his parents in Tokyo. (Unfortunately I can’t remember the name. My ex-boyfriend (a different ex, not “the ex”) liked it.)
I thought the show had put a dystopian slant on the look and feel of Tokyo—perhaps making it look greyer and more desolate—but now I see it was actually a faithful representation.
Much of Tokyo, to me, isn’t particularly beautiful. I heard that everything would be impressively clean and efficient from the moment I arrived at the airport, and it was—but it was also depressingly grey and industrial-looking. Same with the buildings. Driving into the city, I thought they all looked like grey blocks of lego.
Looks & style
I felt out of place. Almost everyone dressed in business colors: black, grey, white, and blue.
Plus, unlike in Southeast Asia (where flip-flops are universal), everyone was wearing proper closed-toe shoes—even when it was over 30 °C outside.
I felt conspicuous in my floral-print dress and sandals.
I also stood out because, being white, I was often the only visibly non-Japanese person around. I knew Japan was a homogeneous society before I went there—but it’s one thing to hear “ethnically Japanese people constitute 98.5% of the population,” and another to see it.
I was constantly doing things wrong.
For example: In a shoe store, an elderly lady was sitting on a bench and slowly tying her shoes. I spotted a pair of shoes I wanted, about a foot away from her, and pulled them off the shelf while maintaining what I thought was a normal distance.
She started yelling at me in Japanese. It was quite disconcerting. I was like “Sorry, sorry. Did you want these?” but she kept raving (about my insubordination, I presume) while I backed away.
I told my Japanese friend about it later. He said however long the other person takes, Japanese people always wait, especially for their elders, so I should have done the same. However, he also said the lady might just have taken the opportunity to yell at me because she hates foreigners/white people; apparently that sentiment is common among the elderly, who never really got on board with the end of Japanese isolationism.
This attitude to waiting was underscored when I went to a popular cafe. There was a long lineup, but no menu in sight. I asked a passing employee where the menus were and he explained that it was attached to the cash register desk at the front.
I asked if they had another copy, since I was worried it would take me a long time to read when I got to the cash. But he said not to worry; everyone else in line would just stand there and wait while I decided what to order.
I found this mind-boggling. You try that in a Tim Hortons in Toronto and people will bite your head off.
So you see: although I tried to be polite and keep out of people’s way, in Japan I just could not get it right.
(Also, note that these sorts of confusing interactions, which happened near-daily, took 10x longer than what I am describing here due to the language barrier. Compared to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, it was surprisingly difficult to be a monolingual English-speaker in Japan.)
An abundance of rules
On the subway: “Please stand on both sides of the escalator. Do not walk.” Being expected to stand quietly in place while precious seconds of your life slip away is a theme in Japan.
In the park: “PROHIBITED: Sports such as ball games and jogging. Music such as playing musical instruments. […] Any other acts that interfere with the operation and protection of the cultural asset.”
At the gym: “No outside shoes allowed.” When I walked in wearing my running shoes, I was instructed to rent a “clean” pair from the gym to wear during my workout. (From then on, I wore my sandals to the gym and changed into my running shoes once I got there.) I resent every second that Japan forced me to waste on changing shoes.
By the way, you know how I said Japan is so modern and efficient from the minute you arrive at the airport? I shouldn’t have believed the hype.
For example, when I tried to pay for a gym membership, the receptionist told me I would have to wait until the first or sixteenth of the month, because those were the only dates their computer system could register payments. What kind of cursed ancient payment-processing technology is this?
(Whereas in my beloved Vietnam, you can walk into any gym and pay cash for a day pass—and no one cares what shoes you’re wearing.)
In fact, I could write a whole post on rules at the gym, but these images will suffice:
Other annoying things
No eating while walking. It’s considered rude. This left me very confused whenever, for instance, I wanted to buy an ice cream at 7-11 and there was no in-store seating.
Where are you supposed to eat your ice cream? Do you only buy one when you live within a two-minute walk of the store (and then you’ve got to go home immediately to eat it)?? Japan, please explain.
My solution was to eat while walking anyway and ignore people’s looks of disgust. That’s what they get for making me wait until after I’d bought my ice cream to realize there was nowhere to sit.
No eating (or drinking other than water, or talking) on the subway. I saw a girl drinking bubble tea and talking quietly on her phone. When we got off the train, my Japanese friend pointed out how all the other Japanese people around us had been giving her the side-eye.
Foreigners are not allowed Japanese phone numbers. When you buy a SIM card, you can only get a data plan. This is fine unless you need to provide a phone number for some official purpose, like receiving SMS verification codes, when it becomes majorly inconvenient.
Foreigners are required to have their passports on hand at all times. You can’t just leave it in your hotel/hostel safe; you have to carry your most valuable document around all the time, so you can provide proof of your right to be in Japan to any police officer who asks.
Everything makes a sound. This is very annoying when you’re trying to withdraw money at the ATM, and it’s like “tring-a-ling! Please select your account type!” -chequing- “beep-boop! Please select the amount you wish to withdraw!” with more jingling musical accompaniments every time you press a button.
Everything comes with instructions. Look how patronizing these toilet instructions are.
To be fair, someone told me foreigners ask a lot of questions about Japanese toilets, which makes Japanese people think foreigners don’t know how to use toilets.
But not quite total control
Based on what I’ve said so far, you might think everyone marches around in lockstep with their arms raised in permanent salute to the emperor.
So why is Tokyo’s message not just plain Conform?
The weird sexual stuff
In some ways, sex is out in the open.
I walked past many love hotels (with rooms you could rent by the hour), maid cafes, and hostess bars where men pay women to talk to them. There are also “soaplands,” aka “assisted bathing facilities,” aka brothels.
Random things are sexualized. Take this electronics store, for example.
But then what is going on with this earbuds display?
Meanwhile, you may have heard of hentai (anime and manga pornography) and tentacle porn, but did you know that in live-action Japanese porn, the genitalia are blurred out?
What’s the point? you may be wondering. Heck if I know.
The extreme public drunkenness
Bands of office bros roam the streets at night. These are groups of 10-12 men, all dressed in blue shirts and grey pants, out for an evening of drunken karaoke with their bosses. Fortunately they’re so drunk that they’re easy to avoid.
There are also very drunk women in twos and threes—these tend to giggle, take up the whole sidewalk with their idiotic wandering, and shout at each other in annoyingly high-pitched voices.
Lone workers stagger home, too, sometimes vomiting on the sidewalk. This isn’t just in nightlife hotspots; I witnessed it on multiple occasions while walking home from the subway in a residential area.
The fact that although crime rates are low, certain types of crime are still rampant
Especially bicycle theft, which is why bicyles are regulated like cars. You have to register your bicycle with the police, and have your papers on hand whenever you’re riding it. If they pull you over and you can’t provide proof of ownership, the police will seize the bike and attempt to return it to the rightful owner.
And sexual harassment, such as groping on the subway. As reported in The Economist:
Surveys suggest that half or more of female commuters have experienced it, although only 10% of victims report the crime to police. Some hold back out of fear and embarrassment; others because they do not want to be late for school or work… Groping has long been trivialised as a nuisance rather than a form of sexual assault, says Masako Makino of Ryukoku University.
Also, the yakuza (Japanese mafia) is a thing. Their members are usually heavily tattooed, so out of fear and an attempt to discourage gang membership, people with tattoos are banned from public baths and leisure centers. My gym featured a large sign in the change room that said “If we catch you with a tattoo, you will be kicked out without a refund!”
Don’t think they’ll make an exception for you because you only have a butterfly on your ankle, either. One of the worst things about Japan is that rules are always applied regardless of common sense.
The number of weirdos who apparently are allowed to just keep being weird without social repercussions
In the course of many attempts at making friends, I met up with a few Japanese dudes through Couchsurfing, but they were all weird 🙁
One of them seemed fine at first. When we got to the bar (we were waiting for other people), he sat down next to me with his thigh pressed up against mine. I was like “Does he not know that’s my leg? Maybe he thinks it’s the table.”
I moved away from him and he slid closer. I told him to maintain a 6-inch distance and he didn’t understand (or pretended not to).
I grabbed his knee, rotated his leg away from mine, and said “Stay.” This seemed to get through to him.
Five minutes later, though, I realized I was not enjoying the interaction and it was time to leave. In hindsight, I should have left way sooner!
I also met lots of other foreigners in Japan. Unfortunately, I now understand the meaning of “weeaboo.”
Despite being surrounded by people (38 million in the greater Tokyo area), I was incredibly lonely. I found myself wandering around like Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.
This is not to say everyone I met was weird. Sometimes I met someone nice, but we lived on opposite ends of the vast city and couldn’t find convenient times to meet up again. After a few weeks of trying and failing to make friends, I got discouraged and stopped making an effort (and then it was my fault we never met up again).
And this is where Japan really shines: as a place to wallow in solitude.
The good parts
Now that I’m not there anymore, I miss so many things about Tokyo and Japan: onsens (hot springs), walking and cycling by the river, interesting trees and plants to look at, fresh sushi/sashimi, excellent customer service… I especially miss the sense of beauty, stillness, harmony, peace, and solitude.
(I’ll have to write another post to cover everything I loved.)
I came to have a great deal of affection for Tokyo, even though I was ultimately very lonely and sad there.
I will go back; but not alone.
More excellent videos
The Dean thinks he’s texting Jeff (brilliant, but if you’re not a fan of the show Community, just skip to 2:40 to see the part relevant to my description of Tokyo).
8 Tips for an AWESOME Trip to Tokyo by Matt’s Travel Tips (warning: he is frighteningly enthusiastic).
Day in the Life of an Average Japanese Salaryman in Tokyo by Paulo From Tokyo.
Why does Japan work so hard? by CNBC Explains.
 I’m aware that Japanese isolationism officially ended in 1853. I still think my friend’s explanation makes sense, though.
 “Pervert alert: Japanese commuters try new ways to deter gropers,” Oct. 31, 2019. https://www.economist.com/asia/2019/10/31/japanese-commuters-try-new-ways-to-deter-gropers
Part 2: What I loved about Japan