Thursday, 6 October 2016

An Intermission to Beijing - and, with sadness, some reflections on Toyko after five years living in it

There is an irony to coming up for air in a city synonymous with some of the worst air pollution in the world.

These days the sun does not stand at midday so much as stagger and clutch at curtains of smog.

But after five years in Tokyo which have descended into a desolating and futile ordeal, a brief escape to China to visit some old friends provided a valuable dose of perspective.

Tokyo is a bubble: an artificial self-contained world which soaks at your soul, slowly dissolving away any distinguishing features until – if you are not destroyed resisting – you have been absorbed into that city’s socio-economic illusion, by when everything outside that membrane appears universes away. And now, as I contemplate with growing finality whether to bring my time in Japan to an end, just a few days looking in from outside proved invaluable.

I was a Chinese Communist once. During my school days in London, in an environment of arrogantly triumphalist right-wing capitalist menace, it was all I could do to draw upon my interest in East Asian history and half-Chinese ethnic heritage to build up a defiant identity-fortress of revolutionary ideology and red books and banners to counter them.

Nowadays I no longer do -isms, but this was a crucial period in developing values of my own, as opposed to submitting to allow any society to feed me its own. However I was never a friend to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has yet to face up to the many atrocities it has caused and errors it has made, most or all of them needless, and most tragic perhaps in their squandering of the real opportunity and hope that movement represented in creating something better for the world, all the more so today.

And yet for better or for worse, China has always been in some way a part of me. Perhaps family connections were also involved, whether in the China of great upheavals from my parents’ own stories, or in those heroes of the 1980s democracy movement I came to know and in some cases meet through my father’s diplomatic work. Although I would never call myself Chinese any more than any other nationality, this is a country which has always held a certain connection to my soul.

Which is strange, considering I had only been there once, in the mid-1990s, long before my own communist period. I was too young then to remember much of that trip now; it lasted only a few days, its outstanding memory my father’s finger-waving altercation with the clerk at the Forbidden City who attempted to charge him a higher price to enter for being foreign.

That at least they no longer seem to do. Much has changed in this country in the last couple of decades, or so it is said.

Perhaps on that visit I also entered the hutong (胡同) streets and alleyways to visit my parents’ own old friends, made in the turbulent days of transition from the madness of post-Cultural Revolution xenophobia (I have heard that it was too dangerous for my parents, one Chinese and one British, to walk down the same street together) to the opening and reforms of Deng Xiaoping.

This time at least I was better aware of these alleys’ significance. The hutongs are the traditional heart and soul of Beijing – hence why, in the name of that strange religion we call development, we have seen fit to wipe them from the map to make way for soulless high-rise apartments and skyscrapers.

Nonetheless no small number of hutongs remains, and at first sight, especially if one is used to the relatively immaculate streets of a city like Tokyo, they can project a shabbiness that disconcerts. Walls and vehicles lie in rusting decay; rubbish overflows from bins uncollected, and all around drift the sights and scents of questionable foodstuffs being prepared under still more questionable sanitation. But from beneath those first impressions rise reassuring currents of genuine humanity: the dwellers here know each other, greet each other with warmth or properly shout at each other when angry. There is a real community here, living amidst walls whose purpose seems less to keep people out than to whisper stories of hundreds of years of continuity: any alley may have its own tale to tell of ways of life unchanged down the centuries, illustrious sons and daughters, thriving markets and businesses, abiding temples, or dissidents hiding from palace or party authorities.

Beijing and Tokyo are both cities that have utterly transformed over the last seventy years, and been heavily critiqued for what they have sacrificed to do so. But in the hutongs of Beijing that remain, the livelihoods and community bonds of the laobaixing (老百, “old hundred surnames”) – the ordinary people of the city – are in plain view, in a way which to my knowledge has no real equivalent in Tokyo.

For all the violent upheavals it has experienced down the ages, Beijing’s rectangular civic scheme still evokes a cosmology that dates back to when the Mongols established it as the Chinese capital. It was consolidated under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which was when many of its most iconic structures appeared. Among those was the Forbidden City, the seat of imperial power at the exact centre of the capital and in line with its north-south axis, as well as the four great temples, one in each compass direction: the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Moon, Temple of Earth and – renovated in the 18th Century and now by far the most prominent – the Temple of Heaven.

Needless to say, most of these sites are now money-spinning temples to the modern tourism industry.

The city continued to grow after the Manchu conquest, remaining the capital during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Additional gardens and estates appeared, most notably the Yuanmingyuan (圆明园) and Yiheyuan (頤和園) summer palaces to the northwest – the latter now a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven.

These sites of course are now synonymous with a much more painful and still highly relevant part of China’s story: its pillaging, looting and humiliation by the European empires, most notoriously the British and the French, during the dynasty’s 19th Century decline. Both summer palaces were ransacked by those countries’ forces during the Second Opium War (1856-60) with many of their treasures plundered, and the burning down of the Yuanmingyuan on the orders of the British consul remains symbolic of how a civilization that saw itself as the centre of the world for five thousand years endured a century of abject suffering on account of the naked greed and bloodlust of upstart foreign predators.

This experience, and the struggle to stand back up, has been central to the Chinese narrative ever since, especially to the CCP’s legitimation of its rule, and still informs the way China conducts its journey and its relationships with the outside world.

The vast gardens and complexes of the Yiheyuan are now another of Beijing’s popular cultural sites. By contrast the ruins of the Yuanmingyuan are largely unrestored; their historical significance and environmental challenges on the site make any renovation plans controversial and politically sensitive.
Suzhou Street in the Yiheyuan, built to resemble the Shantang Canal in Suzhou. This too was totally destroyed by British and French soldiers in 1860 and only rebuilt in the 1980s. Those in the UK now advocating for their soldiers to be exempt from international human rights laws while fighting abroad would do well to remember that the British armed forces have a very long history of atrocities and abuses - and that most parts of the world where they have left their footprints remember this.
It is a complicated country; as with Japan, far more so than its caricatures common in the media or political rhetoric. But where Japan’s contradictions tend to be more starkly defined and readily identified, China’s feel somehow messier, more raw. Like most of the world it seems to have plunged headfirst into market fundamentalist globalization and the faith of development, throwing away left and right any valuing of people, their rights, their relationships or the natural world, for the sake of hammering out and disgorging astronomical tons of material stuff. It shares the tendency to boast of what is measurable in enormous statistics, while forgetting what is too valuable for numbers to capture. The destruction of the hutongs and other heritage; the abandonment of millions of rural poor; the everyday nightmares of air pollution and neverending gridlock on the roads; and of course, a reflexive intolerance for and repression of political dissent and ethno-cultural minorities – all of this is real, and is testament to a share in a global madness here magnified to an unthinkable, uniquely Chinese scale.

But at the same time, it is a country for which history – real history, both the long sweep and the recent cascade of trauma after trauma – matters, and matters acutely.

In this it is quite unlike Japan. There – at least in the big cities – one is given the sense that the concern for story or journey has been lost altogether, let alone people’s agency to write where it goes from here. It is as though history in Japan is awkward, embarrassing, and in the final instance unnecessary; so like most difficult topics it is left undiscussed, or at best reduced to sanitized stereotypes of ninjas and samurai for the consumption of undiscerning tourists. But in China the story is right there in the streets, in the walls and in the haze; no matter how much the maws of development devour, no matter how many times its own leaders might bend and twist it to hide its more shameful chapters, it is a story of such weight, such unimaginable magnitude, that no jaws nor carpet would ever be wide enough to fully engulf it. The story will still be there, and those who deal with the Chinese ignore it at their peril.

Whatever else may be the case, I felt a pervasive realness in Beijing that has brought into sharper relief how starved of it Tokyo has become. An unexpected surprise was that after five years of daily exposure to trained, feigned smiles, I could recognize at once that when people smiled at me in Beijing, though a much rarer occasion than in Tokyo, it was because they only did so if their hearts were smiling too.

A few days before I made this trip, we looked at senryū (川柳) in my Japanese language class: a form of five-seven-five syllable verse similar to haiku, but with fewer rules and typically more humorous or satirical in content. On being asked to come up with our own, I produced almost by instinct the following lines:


egao de mo
kamen o nugu to
kaonashi da

Which could be rendered in English as:

Though a smiling face,
When the mask is removed
No face

…which most of my classmates found somewhat chilling. And it could be there is a certain eldritch ring to it, evoking perhaps the No-Face spirit (likewise kaonashi in Japanese) in Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away, or the abominable Faceless Ones in World of Warcraft.

More literally however it captures one of my main laments at Japan after so many unsuccessful attempts to find a way forward there: that masks, especially smiling masks, are worn so ubiquitously that in the end you are left with few ways to know what a given person thinks or feels. A person in Tokyo may smile (and this is as true of most foreigners I have met there as of Japanese), and it is possible they are expressing a pleasant interest in you; or they may just as likely view you with hatred and contempt. You only know if it is the latter when facial expressions no longer suffice to get it through to you and they escalate it into passive aggression, an art form at which the culture here surely produces the world’s uncontested masters. After only so much shunning, blanking, judging, ignoring, background gossip and laser-guided glances of coldness and disdain, you realize that at least in those societies where people who dislike you scream in your face, you know straight away where you stand.

I do not wish to detract from Japan, whose masterpieces of creativity and human genius I have admired since my childhood and whose strong points – among them unrivalled public safety, clean spaces, beautiful nature and the availability of real food – cannot be taken for granted in a world where so many societies have thrown these away. Nor do I mean any injustice to the small but shining number of real friends I have made here, especially among the older generation (it is in the younger one that the problem mostly lies), whose critical or creative voices are among the most inspiring I have encountered anywhere. But this too is one of Japan’s great contradictions: at the same time as producing originalities of culture and science unique in the world, its society is governed by norms that wring the creative and critical energy from the everyday life of its people.

Japan demands conformity, expects that each person thinks and behaves the same as everyone else in their allotted station – and grinds the soul from those who question the status quo by suffocating them in an eternal social winter of negation and ostracism. That includes those who challenge oppressive or destructive mainstream phenomena such as gender, work addiction, bullying and power harassment, the driving of thousands of people to suicide, or stigmas against people with mental health problems (an admission on this last: I experienced this personally and found the social reaction far more devastating than the problems themselves). Anything with content or substance is interrupted, ridiculed, summarily dismissed; in its place rises a shallow cacophony of endlessly repeating trivial small talk, scripted exchanges, of conventional “wisdom” (tsūnen, 通念) and “common sense” (jōshiki, 常識): the things everyone is supposed just to think and to say without question (known as atarimae, 当たり前), too often the fertile soil of comfortable ignorance and uncritical simplicity from which far more dangerous prejudices and stereotypes emerge.

The result is the triumph of superficiality over substance and a society that leaves people behind. Even then it still expects its forsaken to wear perpetual masks of politeness and positivity. If the mask slips, if a hint is seen of the loneliness and alienation its wearer conceals, then he or she is cast as an enemy of social order, and from then on everything he or she does is wrong.

When challenged on this, people in general seem to struggle to engage with it – in many cases because they really do seem to find it shameful, but too often too out of a genuine belief (which they will state, if pressed enough) that individuals, rather than structural failings, are necessarily to blame for any person’s problems. And I have met no small number of people – again, non-Japanese included – who are indeed proud of this arrangement, claiming it is precisely this that prioritizes the group as a whole and ensures Japan’s vaunted social harmony. To them, the world is fine; an individual with problems should just persevere (ganbatte, 頑張って), endure (gaman shite, 我慢して), change their attitude, or in the worst case go and get medicine from the doctor until they recover (the subtext being that if they do not, it is their own fault). It is a perspective that prevents understanding that oppressive and exploitative social norms and structures do exist, and do destroy lives; and forgets that people so destroyed cannot be held obliged to preserve the prevailing order, let alone contribute to it. In the end, such a harmony is no harmony at all, and it is society as a whole that pays the price for it.

Tokyo is a bubble. And the cultural significance of bubbles is twofold. One: they look pretty. And two: inevitably, they burst.

To say Beijing helped me put this in perspective is not to claim that China does not suffer from a similar malaise – goodness knows how many hundreds of thousands of tortured souls have been forsaken on that particular national journey in the recent decades alone. After all, that tendency to arrogantly sacrifice the non-conforming in the supposed name of the group or the nation might be said to feed back into certain Confucian visions of society, or (far more sadistically) to the Legalism of Qin Shihuang, both of which originated in China. But in China one also finds a vigorous counter-current: a tendency to remonstrate or rebel in the face of unsatisfactory conditions, relentlessly and no matter how much pain it costs you, visible from the catalogue of uprisings and revolts down the millennia to the frequent Chinese tendency, be it of neighbours, shopkeepers or tourists, to show you are upset about something by shouting loudly about it.

It can certainly go too far – the aforementioned tourists are topical for it these days, or at the other end of the scale one might consider the Taiping Rebellion. But by contrast, in the Japan of today, perhaps more than at any time in its past, one finds that the opposite end of the spectrum, of acquiescence to injustice and the shaming not of the violators but of the violated, is drowning its society in a far less visible but certainly no less pervasive torment.

A torment for which a reckoning will come, as it always does. It may come slowly; so long as Japan sleepwalks on in its present posture, there will be no solution for example to the crises in elderly care, depopulation of rural areas or the disillusioning relationship paradigm and falling birth rate, all of which are complex challenges to which responses based on socially uncritical assumptions will not suffice. Or it may come swiftly and dramatically, if say a big earthquake or crisis in relations with neighbouring countries brings violent nationalists to political power – a tendency happening across the world right now, as well as one the current administration does more than hint at and of which after all Japan has some terrible previous experience. One way or another, it is always society itself, not only its victims, that answers in blood for leaving people behind and having the audacity to call it peace.

And that is why, with a heavy heart, I believe I am done in Japan.

It may be because after five years in Tokyo, I am no closer to finding suitable work or building fulfilling social relationships. It is certainly in part because of the excruciating experience of a social and mental health crisis here, which – much like in Britain in years past – saw me cast as a criminal and a violator for it, including by those I had thought my friends, and treated with a universal coldness that no human being with a shred of compassion would direct even at a war criminal. Given that rejecting such an appalling social order was the reason I left Britain in the first place, it has become clear that Japan holds no advantage in this regard. There seems, in any case, little hope that further time or energy spent here will reap sustainable returns, least of all the necessary friendships and alliances to make real progress in my life's mission, the defeat of gender. Perhaps in the regions, outside the bubble of Tokyo, things are different, but finding a basis to get there and become established has been all but impossible: the structures of society and economy alike are too rigid, too fake, and, in the end, too passively hostile to diversity – and to thinking – to leave any place within them for a person like me.

Again I say this with deep remorse, as the very real faces of the more inspirational people I have met here hover past like constellations in twilight skies of memory. As well as pain and frustration there have been good things here in Japan, strong things. Those represented in the articles on this blog, especially from the mountains and far places, represent only a fraction. But my journey has stalled in Tokyo, and the environment in which it has happened has cost me dearly. Barring some kind of miracle – and that would take some doing here, it is clear now – I do not expect to be in Japan much longer.

How I feel for Japan’s own alienated and misunderstood, those who do not share that privilege of mine which should be everyone’s right: the right to leave. One can only hope they will not have to. That sooner rather than later, this country will awaken to the need for a kinder, realer and more compassionate social fabric, thoughtful and courageous enough to challenge problematic norms, and flexible enough to be a home for all of its population, a people as diverse and capable of love as any other. If there is one thing to be said for Japanese society, it is that when it decides it ought to change, it changes.

But to persuade anyone here that it should? That will take a better person than I.


  1. Nice. I have been thinking along similar lines recently, finding it more and more difficult to love, even like, this country that I've called home for 22 years. This feeling has caused me all kinds of undue stress. More and more time spent abroad, not to mention intense disgust at the abusive power structure current in play, has forced me to take a deeper at Japan, shaking me from the somnambulic bubble that life here tends to induce.

    On a lighter note, when I first heard that Beijing was getting the Olympics, the quickly booked a flight over, doing little but biking around the hutong for three days. I imagine most of those I saw are long gone now.

    1. Thank you for your comment. 22 years here is impressive; you have been here for most of the Heisei period then, and would surely be in a much better position than me to assess the ways Japan has changed and not changed over this timescale. It is truly a stress-inducing environment, all the sadder for how out of step it is with both its own soul as a country (the stories, the culture etc.), especially when contrasted with so many of the areas outside Tokyo.