Eyeless in Ginza

Paul Dowling

School of Culture Language & Communication

Institute of Education

University of London

A trip to the local supermarket involves a walk or cycle ride through Kishine Koen. Early in the morning, the park is full of power-walkers and joggers, practitioners of Tai Chi and the occasional tennis-manque playing against a wall. Later in the day mothers pushing baby-carriages, children on bicycles and elderly men flying model aircraft take over. Later still and, in early Spring, hanami parties under the cherry blossom. A few of these go on into the night, until the beer and sake run dry; otherwise, darkness clears the park until the first joggers. The supermarket is on the far side of a crossroads at the corner of the park where the marshal arts centre rests above a small lake bordered by sakura. The crossroads is regulated by traffic lights—shingo. I wait obediently for my turn and recall the day, a year or so ago, when the lights went out—shingo no go. I emerged from the park into chaos. Nothing was moving apart from six police officers waving furiously and blowing whistles and shouting angry and contradictory instructions to bemused and very stationary drivers. I stood and watched the Kishine Cops for ten minutes. Then another police car arrived. I was not entirely clear how it had managed to thread the traffic jam, but there it was. Two more officers had arrived. But these looked different. Their colleagues were not shabby, by any means, but the newcomer’s uniforms—a different design—gave the impression of having been pressed and starched only moments before their arrival and their pristine white cotton gloves positively gleamed in the sunshine. The six originals immediately got back into their own vehicles, exhausted. Before they had started their engines, their replacements had the junction back in perfect operation; Yokohama boogie-woogie. Back in the UK, I tend to find that traffic at broken-down traffic-lights passes almost as well as it does when the lights are working—sometimes better—until the police arrive; thenceforth bedlam. In Japan, it would appear that they have a traffic-lights-broken-down division, wonderful; it’s almost a pity that Japanese traffic-lights almost never break down.

Japan, it would seem, is a society that privileges the strongly coded over the weakly coded and this is nowhere more visible than when the system shifts, in the hiatus between the engagement of subsystems; traffic lights give way to traffic-light-broken-down police. Sometimes the system refuses to budge. Japan is the only place in the world where the kitchen of an up-market restaurant has refused my request (on grounds of diabetes) that they substitute fresh fruit for the sugary dessert on the set menu. Even asking for the ketchup to be omitted from a morning-set at Narita airport sometimes presents problems. Trains famously run to perfect time, gliding into the station as the minute hand clicks to the appointed minute; this is not like clockwork, it is clockwork. But the shinkansen management have no answer to snow in Kyoto, the mid-point between Tokyo and Hiroshima. The shinkansen cannot run through snow, but clear weather on either side of Kyoto should allow a shuttle service with conventional train connections. Not possible, most of the travellers will have reserved seats; this cannot be managed using an ad hoc timetable. True to Saussurean principles, though, the 12.19 in from Osaka remains the 12.19 even when it arrives five hours later when the snow has been cleared. Tragically, sarin gas set loose on the Tokyo subway in 1995 was also a gift that the system could not return as Murakami Haruki’s interviews with victims of the attack so poignantly reveal. The system recovers, though.

In the supermarket perfectly stacked shelves neatly display perfect packages containing appropriate-sized portions of vegetables. Cabbages are available in quarters or halves or whole, for the large family, tiny polystyrene trays each containing what one suspects is precisely the same number of fresh peas. Fish is similarly gift wrapped—just how can salmon and tuna be cut into such perfect cuboids—as is meat—the only time you ever get to find out what a whole chicken looks like is at Christmas when there may be one or possibly two on the shelf (the fishmonger in the chikadou at Yokohama Station didn’t really expect anyone to buy a whole tuna for ī318.000 (around £1500), but if he didn’t pin a price on it people would keep asking what it would cost if they wanted to buy it). Above all, everything is clearly divided into Japanese and foreign produce (the latter at maybe one-third of the price).

On the face of it, then, the region of the uncodified is a dangerous space to be avoided if at all possible; but perhaps this is a too simple. During another walk in Kishine Koen—this time en route to the subway station on the corner on the other side of the lake—I am reminded of something else that I’ve noticed before. It’s the middle of the day so the park is dominated by women and young children. I am strolling quite briskly along the wide path at the top end of the park, gaining on a small, elderly woman who’s walking hand-in-hand with a young boy—her grandchild, maybe. Then, without any obvious (to me) warning, they turn to the right to walk across the path, crossing right in front of me. They’re not moving very fast, but I’m very close and I have to execute an emergency stop to avoid skittling them over. Neither of them had looked around to see if another pedestrian or even a cyclist might be occupying the lane that they chose to cross. A little irritated, I stride on past the children’s playground area at the top of the steep slope down to the entrance to the station. Here, another young boy, this time on his own and on a bicycle, rides straight across the path and onto the grass, again cutting directly in front of me; again, not as much as a glance in my direction; I perform an emergency swerve, this time. I’ve seen something like this on a Los Angeles freeway some years before. I found myself (without entirely remembering how I got there) in five lanes of bumper-to-bumper automobiles all doing exactly 70 miles per hour and with exits occurring apparently randomly either on the inside or outside of the carriageway: how on earth do you get off? I had visions of running out of gas before I could figure it out. I needed a miracle and one happened. A large sedan on an inside lane signalled right and pulled immediately into the next lane and then the next until it reached the outside in time for the exit. At each lane change the solid line of cars had parted to allow the sedan passage. I tried it. It worked almost as smoothly as a junction operated by the Yokohama traffic-lights-broken-down police. In both Kishine Koen and L.A. it might appear to the observer that the traffic was invisible to the individual or vehicle making the manoeuvre and that it could be relied upon to remain invisible.

On to the subway and to Yokohama main line station. This is a Sunday, so the place is absolutely heaving—Yokohama Station always seems to be busiest on Sundays. Here, there are literally thousands of people walking in every possible direction, but this is no Brownian motion. Paths cross smoothly without any abrupt changes in pace or direction and without a single collision—not even a brushing of bags en passant. Naturally, I am a bit of a foreign body in the fluid as I appear to dummy my way through the crowd, but awkward as my staccato moves might look, they fail to generate the slightest eddy. The really surprising thing is that no one appears to be paying the slightest attention to anyone else; it’s as if they can navigate on peripheral vision alone and they’re all doing it except me. What’s more, I’ve noticed that if I walk straight ahead without looking where I’m going, then people will move aside faintly rippling the flow. I can’t keep it up for long, though, it induces in me far too much anxiety and I quickly revert to clumsy ducking and diving.

The sense of invisibility carries on into the trains as well. My Japanese girlfriend recently passed on a question that had been put to her by a colleague. The colleague is a bilingual Japanese American now living in Tokyo and teaching at one of its universities. Why is it, he had asked, that we see so much putting on of make-up by women travelling on trains these days; it never used to be like that? Some imaginary sociology was called for. The separation of home and workplace, of course, establishes a private-public delineation. Both of these spaces will be strongly coded in terms of who is permitted to do and say what under what circumstances and, in particular, in terms of relations between individuals. The regulation of the latter will certainly be coded, in Japan, in spoken and body language. The between space is, in this sense, relatively uncertain, relatively weakly coded or, at least, open to alternative codings. If invisibility is the prevalent code here then it is unsurprising to find a well-, if casually-, dressed man in his sixties dangling from the handrail in the subway train. He might do much the same thing in Kishine Koen when he interrupts his power-walking for a spot of arm-stretching. In the park, though, the iron frame is installed for precisely that purpose and not to assist stability in the event of an earthquake—not an infrequent event in the Kanto area. Nor is it surprising that absolutely no one at all pays any heed to the mentally disturbed young man who dances and shrieks at his reflection in the glass of the train door or that another young man—very sharply dressed—appears to feel quite comfortable to stand in front of a mirror on the wall of Kishine Koen subway station and perfect his hair arrangement before scrutinising the inside of his mouth and nose. The working man sitting next to me feels perfectly free to ogle openly the centrespread in a sex-mag; no one is looking.

Alternative coding on the railways has been available to men for some time, of course, but is perhaps a more recent feminine space. Two of the expressions for wife place her in the house: kanai might literally be rendered as ‘inside the house’ and okusan might be ‘the person who resides at the back of the house, where wives and family sleep (though an alternative might connote treasure). Another two expressions—tsuma and nyoubou—might both connote something supplementary or decorative and this might resonate with the coding for women in their undifferentiated space outside of the private domain. Regionalisation of this space arises with women’s increasing economic activity so that they too have access to alternative public codings and, in particular, to the invisibility of railway travel. Hence the increase in cosmetic incidents visible only to a non-native. Unhappily, this invisibility is symbolic rather than material. The Yokohama City mayor has recently found it necessary to provide women-only carriages on the subway during rush-hour travel in an effort to counter sexual assaults by men in sardine-tin conditions. Nevertheless, there is the appearance of a kind of cultural autism; not only no eye contact, but a general facility to look at no one at all even on a crowded train—unless, of course, it is introspection within a group of travelling companions. So a young couple and a magazine are able to occupy a row of three shinkansen seats in a stuffed non-reserved car. Their two-year-old daughter is playing on the floor in front of the father. Standing in the crowded aisle next to them is another couple, rather older and taking turns to carry a somewhat heavier child who would be trampled on this part of the floor. To offer the spare seat would naturally be to admit to breaking the taboo on visibility. Even pre-coded objects–the elderly, the infirm, the pregnant or child-carrying—seem frequently to be invisible so that the silver-coloured ‘priority seats’ on the JR trains are often occupied by young and apparently fit businessmen asleep or engrossed in manga. It is of some note that foreigners are allowed to be visible, just occasionally; I have been openly stared at by an elderly bucolic man, perhaps on a rare trip to the city, and offered a seat (me, not my Japanese, female companion) by an urbane gent who must have had at least ten years on my age and, or course, fellow foreigners exchange furtive glances. Generally, though, I am as invisible as everyone else. Foreigners, of course, can ‘see’ the invisible. The Japanese American also reported overhearing very intimate conversations that would never, he asserted, take place on an American train.

Outside, the invisibility continues. No one holds a door open for anyone else (or, apparently, expects a door to be held open for them). Three schoolgirls practice a dance routine In Yokohama Park. They set up their audio system at a point where there are unlikely to be too many passers-by, but they seem completely unfazed by my presence. But the spell of invisibility can be broken initiating a more formally coded interaction. Asking directions works effectively. The response to “sumimasen” (excuse me) is a smartly uttered, “hai”, from everyone from a policeman to a school student to a parked motorcylist to a vagrant. It doesn’t always work quite like this with foreigners whose spoken Japanese seems sometimes to be almost wantonly misrecognised. For natives, though, a coded space is easily and quickly established. Eruptions that are less easily accommodated within the public coding system remain invisible: no one intervenes to arrest the young pickpocket as he runs from his victim who shouts after him in the Yokohama supermarket—a rare event indeed. So the sellers of The Big Issue (recently introduced in Osaka but making a holiday appearance in Ginza) are dressed in smart denims, outclassing the more conventional street vendors in Tokyo and very different from the assortment on the Tottenham Court Road.

Japanese tour groups are recognized all around the world, but joining a coach trip in Hokkaido brings new insights. We are together—mostly on the coach—for two days, yet interaction between parties is minimal. At one point the tour guide organises a paper-scissors-stone competition with a large dried fish as the prize for the winner. Each party must nominate one participant (I nominate my girlfriend). There is much laughing, but no commiserating or congratulating or even conversation between the parties which each relate separately to the guide like spokes to their hub. The overnight stay is at an onsen hot spring baths. I refrain, preferring a bottle of sake and a book in our room. I take a solo shower every morning and communal bathing is not really my thing and the water is very, very hot. Everyone else, though, rushes for the pools. The genders are kept apart, but other than that, everyone goes in together. When my Japanese girlfriend recently accompanied a group of freshmen undergraduates to an onsen ‘camp’ for a weekend, she stayed dry until students’ lights out; communal nudity with unseeing and unseen strangers is one thing, but in coded public—unthinkable. Once out of the baths our tour companions descend to the hotel restaurant dressed only in yukata—light cotton kimono—and sit with their respective parties on separate tables; one doesn’t make friends in the bath.

Oddly, there is a sort of parallel of the visible-invisible code in the Japanese language. The name of my local park, Kishine Koen can be written in hiragana—a kind of alphabet: is ki as in kit; is shi as in ship; is ne as in net; こう is koutake the co from cot and sustain it without changing the vowel sound; is e as in net; and is the consonant n, so きしねこうえん is ki-shi-ne-kou-en. If I were to read Kishine as if it were English (as perhaps you did when you began this article), then I might come up with something like ki-shine—just two syllables, because the final e merely imposes on the pronunciation of the second ‘i’ distinguishing its sound from that of the first ‘i’. But in Japanese, hiragana generally have no phonetic impact on any other in the word; is always pronounced in pretty much the same way irrespective of the characters around it. Where there are phonetic changes (particular consonant combinations, for example) then this is recorded in the spelling or by the addition of a diacritic mark. The one partial exception in this example is こう. These two hiragana would be separately rendered ko (as co in cot) and u (as a very short oo with the lips held back), but here form a combination. There are a few other examples of such companions (and they are all consistent in their phonetic behaviour). For the most part, though, hiragana are largely invisible to one another. However, the name of the park would be more likely to be written in the more arcane kanji—the Chinese characters that predominate in written Japanese—thus, 岸根公園. Here, the four kanji are pronounced kishi, ne, kou and en respectively and might be translated as river bank, root, public, garden—so, park by the river. But each of these kanji might be pronounced in at least one other way depending upon the combination in which it is involved. Thus 根気 is pronounced kon-ki, ne has become kon. Not only that, but 根気 means perseverance or patience and doesn't have any obvious (to me) connection with root. Kanji ‘see’ each other; hiragana are mutually invisible, perhaps.

I’m told that business in Japan has to be conducted, at least initially, face-to-face with no mediation, not even a telephone and certainly not a computer. Perhaps the codes that establish visibility are more difficult to enact in a mediated environment. This seems to benefit the Tokyo rail and subway networks that can carry businessmen to and from meetings with their customers all day. Again there is a kind of analogy elsewhere, this time on the TV. Japanese television advertisers are very inventive with their use of moving image editing techniques—I particularly like the one with the girl running along on the surface of the water in a lake and tripping over a boat when she is hailed by a guy on the shore. News and documentary programmes, though, often appear almost technophobic. Information is presented on cardboard charts that are held in place by the commentator who might tear off a sticker to reveal a baseball championship draw and so forth. I was enthralled by the demonstration of baseball hitting techniques which involved a polystyrene ball that could be moved along a track connected to an oversized bat. The ex-hitter expert slid the ball along its track manually to demonstrate a possible trajectory. The ads, of course, are playful and not to be taken too literally, unlike the baseball (live American major league in the daytime—Ichiro for the Seattle Mariners or Matsui for the New York Yankees). Virtuality, it seems, entails invisibility.

Now Japan is not the first place that I have encountered something that looks like a culture of autism. Tesco in Surrey Quays is another place. But here, the apparent oblivion to the actual or potential presence of others tends to be rather intrusive most commonly realised in the form of trolleys and or gossiping shoppers blocking entire aisles. For the most part, self-indulgent behaviour in Japan seems to be non-intrusive unless, that is, you happen to be a staring foreigner who doesn’t know and can’t work out the rules (or a sociologist who (invisibly, of course) ignores them). Not absolutely always: whilst taking a tourist snapshot at the emperor’s palace in Kyoto I was very forcefully shoved out of the way by a small old woman who wanted to speak to a police officer who was standing behind me. I have also been admonished by another elderly woman on the Kyoto subway for sitting with my legs crossed (not advised in crowded Tokyo, but on this occasion in the old capital the old woman, myself and my girlfriend were the only passengers in the carriage). I have been asked, at a bus stop, if I needed any assistance. I have been invited to conversation by an old-soldier in a tracksuit who recited the words of the Japanese national anthem translated into English and then German and announced that, studying at the Imperial University in Kyoto shortly after the second world war, he had read John Stewart Mill which had converted him from a militarist to a liberal. He also wanted to look at the book I was reading, but gave up when he admitted that the English was too difficult for him. Of course, I am very visibly not Japanese. But on the same bus I saw a young girl give up her seat to an old woman—both apparently Japanese—and my Japanese girlfriend was also engaged in conversation by the same old soldier and has, herself, been roughly pushed aside as she spoke with a subway ticket collector by a small old man who wanted to show his pass. It may or may not be a coincidence that all of these incidents happened in Kyoto which is in the Kansai region of the country, a region whose people are widely stereotyped by Tokyo denizens. It should also be said that Kyoto is a small city that receives rather more than its share of tourists, both Japanese and international.

Nevertheless, for the most part, the codes seem to operate quite consistently here. That which is readily codified by the system is codified and receives the appropriately codified response; that which cannot be codified is invisible. And, for the most part, that which cannot be codified is the intrusion of the private into the public. The unruly wagamama of personal desires and habits can happily coexist with the only apparently all-encompassing system of smooth regulation and ritualized language that is stereotypical Japan. And where system and lifeworld touch then the former will ensure the continued invisibility of the latter as the bubblegum is scraped from the station floor in almost the same instant that is spat there. “Shitsurei shimasu”—“I am going to be rude”—says the waitress as she interrupts my conversation to place dessert in front of my dining partner; in Japan it seems that you really can have your cake and eat it. This is, of course, a condition that is very worthy of preservation. It is oddly consistent with the common attitude to ‘returnees’ here. These are Japanese and, in particular, Japanese schoolchildren, who have spent time living abroad after which they return to remain in Japan. Reportedly, these kids often have a very hard time with bullying in school, often by exclusion. What they might acquire outside Japan, of course, is an eyesight for the invisible. Such acquisition would render them uncodable—not Japanese/not foreigners—and in danger of invisibility where the code is visibility. A common defense, I’m told, is the avoidance of talking about experiences outside of Japan, even feigned inadequacy in the English classroom by students who may have acquired fluency in an Anglophone country.

My former mentor claimed that the very worst fate was to be ignored. Yet he was a man who didn’t take at all kindly to criticism; on those aspects of our identities in which we place greatest private investment perhaps none of us does. His claim, provoking as it is, is not to be generalised. Even as a foreigner, I feel private and safe in busy Ginza and in Kishine Koen, whichever shift is on. By contrast, my native London feels dangerous and eyes burn into me from every direction. The real question, though, is, which comes first? Commentaries are often (usually) written as if they provide insights into the objects of their analysis. It is perhaps more appropriate to see the commentary as the reference of an object text or field to an analytic system of which it thereby stands as an instance. Now this is not to claim pure structuralist subjectivity to the extent that the analytic system is not entirely closed, but is able to learn from its encounters; the commentary is the product of a transaction. The commentator produces their commentary in her or his own developing self-image. The eyes of the sociologist project their descriptive systems onto their objects but are constantly searching for what is initially invisible to them and in accommodating to the light, the descriptive systems transform, they are voyeuristic. The eyes of the Japanese system may be innocent of this particular pathology, but if they are, it can only signify the stasis of a system that is doomed to reproduce itself; a cool, clone death, however economically productive it might be. My glimpse of my own invisibility, walking through the park, is an insight into the dilemmas that dominate my existence. I can hide away at home or I must intrude where I am not welcome and will not be greeted; I can play the game or I will not be seen and, either way, I will not be seen. My mentor was, it seems, wrong: the only fate that awaits us is to be ignored; we are all eyeless and everywhere is Ginza.

Well, that’s the pessimistic version. Another day and another walk in the park. It really is a glorious spring day—sunshine, low twenties—I walk to the supermarket for provisions, forget to buy bottles of cold green tea and happily walk back. I buy two small bottles to drink in the park as well as the large bottle for the fridge.